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Number 1 on my top 10 list for security executives: History’s lessons

Sep 15, 20145 mins
Data and Information SecurityGovernmentIT Leadership

I recently kicked off a new series of blogs based on the top 10 threats, trends and business priorities for security executives. This is part one: History’s lessons.

Stability is an illusion

In security, such is the universe, change is constant. If we were able to watch the Earth change, adapt in fast-forward over the last several billion years, we would quickly come to the conclusion that stability is an illusion.

Continents come and go and oceans rise and fall. Some species are extant while others become extinct. Our written history is only about 6,000 years old and an individual might live around a century. Simply put, we have a very narrow and somewhat static perspective on things.

In just the last two decades that I’ve been involved in information security we’ve seen security change from being a hobby, to a good idea, to a regulatory mandate and most recently a strategic, business imperative.

We must constantly evaluate how we are approaching security.

  • Are our existing controls still providing value; can it be measured?
  • Do we have the right level of tools, talent and techniques?
  • Are we being proactive or just reactive by waiting to be attacked?
  • Are our incident response programs able to scale in the face of IoT, mobile, cloud and other IT trends?
  • Do our security controls have context and intelligence that make them aware of the constantly changing threat landscape outside our environment?

Shifts in advantage

There are some events in history where one side is simply “outgunned.” The following may seem pretty obvious to us now, but the advantages were likely more opaque when happening.

The Greeks ruled the ancient world with iron spears and used a close-order infantry formation called a Phalanx to fight as a single unit that while historically effective, especially on flat terrain moving in one direction, required the enemy to attack them, and for the Phalanx to react.

The Romans leveraged a steel Gladius sword allowing them to fight not only with stronger weapons but be on the offensive, more agile and more effective on diverse terrains. This Roman advantage culminated in Rome defeating Greece in 146 BC.

While this is an extreme over simplification of the factors that lead to the fall of Greece, the technology (metal) and the process (battlefield hand-to-hand combat) played a significant role. Some would argue that the inability for the Greeks to identify the Roman advantages defeated the Greeks before any battle began.

How similar is this to information security? Do we continue to throw the same types of security products and processes at the problem because they worked historically even though we know the enemy has changed tactics?

We have to do something. We can’t simply give up. The fact is there are a lot of great security products. There are integration points such as APIs between many of these products, or platform-based solutions that are more inclusive. But they still fail, and that failure is largely predicated on two definable gaps.

First, our industry has trained security administrators. These administrators understand how to configure a firewall, set up IPS signatures, deploy anti-virus and manage a wealth of other products. They may even have an incident response program in place. But we don’t have enough training and focus on security analysis – partly because it isn’t tied to any one product and much of the training today is based on vendor training.

While security administration and vendor training has value, if that’s where one’s security capabilities ends, it means the people looking for nefarious activity might actually have the right tools at their disposal, but they lack the techniques to be effective and efficient. 

Second, security products might be operating in a silo; this is an antiquated methodology. If you are going to connect something in your environment, it better have hooks into other parts of your environment to increase the ROI of your existing controls. If not, give it a couple years before it becomes shelved.

Beyond integration across devices and between controls addressing the areas of prevention, detection and response, there needs to be a greater level of awareness and context.

  • Some of this context needs to be derived from the inside. For example, you would want to know about critical assets, their OS, their applications, their subnets, what users have access and their data at rest, in motion and in use.
  • Some of this context needs to be derived from the outside. For example, if you see an IP address hitting your network you may want to know
    • Is it a known bad source; if so, how bad and for how long
    • What country it’s coming from
    • Is it associated with something like malware, botnets, anonymous proxies or other risky variables

Admitting that the current approaches are failing doesn’t mean we’ve failed. We need to adapt. We need to make better use of our existing security controls. We need to enrich those controls. We need to make better use of our security administrators. We need to help turn security administrators into security analysts.

History has taught us that change is constant. We must first recognize that so we are aware and proactive. Then we must evaluate to determine where the failures are and with whom the advantage resides. Finally we must adapt to mitigate those failures and shift advantage back. Then it all starts again – change is after all constant and unforgiving.


Over the last two decades Brian Contos helped build some of the most successful and disruptive cybersecurity companies in the world. He is a published author and proven business leader.

After getting his start in security with the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and later Bell Labs, Brian began the process of building security startups and taking multiple companies through successful IPOs and acquisitions including: Riptech, ArcSight, Imperva, McAfee and Solera Networks. Brian has worked in over 50 countries across six continents and is a fellow with the Ponemon Institute and ICIT.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Brian Contos and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications Inc. or its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.