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Amit Yoran on Cyber Security and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Amit Yoran

Amit Yoran

My friend Amit Yoran recently gave an interview to Steven Fox of CSO-online in which he explored the relevance of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to cyber security. Amit is one of the world’s leading experts on cyber security. The is currently the Chairman and  CEO of NetWitness and former Cyber Security Czar for the United States. The podcast of the interview is available here. In the online published version, Fox writes:

The Art of War

Sun Tzu’s influence is felt across disciplines – business, politics, and sports.  According to Mr. Yoran, “there are an amazing number of parallels between The Art of War and the information security business.  In its very basic form – knowing your enemy – knowing how cyber vandals, miscreants, criminals, and even nation-state actors use cyber attack and cyber exploitation for their various objectives.”

In a cyber landscape, we face adversaries that, in some cases, employ advanced techniques in their attacks.  “Cyber security is an asymmetric form of warfare,” said Yoran.  The issue of attribution compounds the difficulties associated with cyber security.  According to Mr. Yoran, attackers rely on anti-forensic attack techniques to cover their tracks.  In response, NetWitness’s network monitoring technologies apply “forensic rigor” to the examination of network traffic.  This allows the attack target to gather intelligence on the attacker.  Mr. Yoran states that this focus on forensic analysis enables strategic and tactical agility.

Sun Tzu stresses the importance of understanding yourself as well as the enemy.  It is important to recognize how your existing assets can be positioned to compete successfully.  Mr. Yoran agrees.  “There’s no way for you to flip a switch and have people change their perception, processes, or mode of operation.  Nor should they abandon the security infrastructure they’ve invested in.  These are necessary.  They are also insufficient when dealing with advanced threats.”  However, this awareness allows organizations to invest strategically to enhance their defenses.

The Cyberspace Review

In the July installment of my Art of War column, I detailed Sun Tzu’s perspective on the Obama Administration’s Cyberspace Review document.  This article outlines three scenarios where government oversight can hamper the effectiveness of security leaders.

When asked about his perspective, Mr. Yoran conceded that parts of the plan relate to government agencies and are not applicable to the private sector.  He stressed, however, that matters of cyber defense is an all-inclusive responsibility given that the vast majority of these resources are developed, owned, and operated by the private sector.  He felt it appropriate for the government to set the rules of engagement on the battlefield.  “It is illegal – criminal – to use offensive methods in your defensive strategy,” said Yoran.  By doing so, we would be no better than those attacking us.

The Conditions for Victory

Sun Tzu said that “the winning army realizes the conditions for victory before fighting.”  When asked about these conditions, Mr. Yoran replied that the conditions for victory in the cyber battlefield do not align with those of conventional warfare.  “We must accept that, in this venue, the advantage goes to the aggressor,” said Yoran.  “Any medium to large scale enterprise is compromised already or significantly vulnerable to compromise.”  Given the recent cyber attack on government web sites, this statement is particularly salient.

“If we are going to win in cyber,” said Yoran, “we must be prepared for our systems to be comprised.  We need to be able to operate our businesses, and conduct our government and public services, in a state where we know or we can reasonably assume that parts of our IT infrastructure are comprised.”  This aligns with Sun Tzu’s advice to assume that the enemy will attack and act accordingly.

Cyber Espionage

Sun Tzu stated that foreknowledge of the enemy’s plans is critical to success.  The Art of War dedicates a chapter to the different types of spies one can employ for intelligence gathering.  When asked about cyber espionage, Mr. Yoran discussed the magnitude of this threat.  “FBI has estimated that over 100 nations have offensive cyber capability and organizations that have offensive mission around the world,” said Yoran.  He cited a National Research Council policy framework that states that the capabilities of these nations are at least as sophisticated as what we see from cyber criminals.

“Our own national infrastructure is perhaps more vulnerable than most given its size, its age, and the fact that we are adding interoperability technologies and communications on top of an existing platform.”  Mr. Yoran cited increased coordination between government and private sector practitioners as a positive step in dealing with those vulnerabilities.

Leadership in the Modern Enterprise

Sun Tzu highlights the importance of balanced leadership composed of the following attributes: intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness.  I asked Mr.Yoran to comment on which of these attributes are needed to tackle the current business risks.

“Trustworthiness is always at the core,” said Yoran.  “By that I mean trustworthiness in government, in the private sector, and in the relationship between government and the private sector.”  He also emphasized that trust must be developed between the cyber warriors/defenders and leadership.  This mutual trust has been hampered by the fact that these groups speak different languages.  We need to focus on how we can improve those communications with an eye on engendering trust between these communities.

Mr. Yoran also cited intelligence as a critical attribute a leader must develop.  “The better we understand our own vulnerabilities, our own exposure, and our own reliance on technology – the better [able] we are to address the business risk and modify our behavior so we are mitigating the risk.”

Sound advice. Amit currently serves on the CSIS Commission on Cyber Security for the 44th Presidency. I hope that President Obama will be paying close attention to Amit’s advice on all matters relating to cyber security as the United States attempts to refine its strategy in this area.

(HT: Christopher Burgess)

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.