Four Imperatives for Cybersecurity Success in the Digital Age: Part 1

Feb 16, 2016
19 minutes

Having joined Palo Alto Networks following a 35-year career in the U.S. military, the past decade of which I served in a variety of leadership positions in cyber operations, strategy and policy, I have found that many of the cybersecurity challenges we face from a national security perspective are the same in the broader international business world.

This blog post series describes what I consider to be four major imperatives for cybersecurity success in the digital age, regardless of whether your organization is a part of the public or private sector.

To provide a sense of what I intend to cover in this series, here are the major themes for each imperative:

  • Imperative #1 – We Must Flip the Scales
  • Imperative #2 – We Must Broaden Our Focus to Sharpen Our Actions
  • Imperative #3 – We Must Change Our Approach
  • Imperative #4 – We Must Work Together

BLOG #1 of 4: Imperative #1


This first blog in the series is about Imperative #1 for cybersecurity success in the digital age.

Before I get to the details of the first imperative, allow me to provide some background and context for all four imperatives, and then I’ll provide an executive summary of the first imperative in case you are pressed for time.


First, my role as the Federal CSO for Palo Alto Networks requires that I “evangelize” to the various groups of individuals, leaders and organizations with which I interact. My job is to use my past experience to ensure a deeper understanding of the cyberthreat landscape and provide thought leadership about effective concepts to deal with a growing threat while ensuring that leaders can manage risk in ways that enable their business or mission, not detract from or restrict those vital functions.

Second, because of my military experience, I think of effective concepts in terms of several key factors. I use these factors to explain concepts in a comprehensive way, and so I’ll use these factors to describe each of the imperatives for cybersecurity success in the digital age. Figure 1 below provides the four factors that I use; and, below that, I provide some brief definitions:


Figure 1

  • Threat: This factor describes how the cyberthreat is evolving and how we are responding to those changes.
  • Policy and Strategy: Given our assessment of the overall environment, this factor describes what we should be doing and our strategy to align means (resources and capabilities – or the what) and ways (methods, priorities and operations – or the how) to achieve ends (goals and objectives – or the why).
  • Structure: This factor includes both organizational (human dimension) and architectural (technical dimension)
  • Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP): This factor represents the tactical aspects of how we actually implement change where the rubber meets the road.

My last point of background and context is about the digital age, itself. So, what does the digital age environment look like? Two important trends come to my mind.

First, our growing reliance as a society on technology for just about everything we do is only going to increase. This isn’t news to anyone; and, regardless of whether you are talking about pubic or private organizations, or our personal lives, there is no escaping the level of trust that we continue to place in technology. Equally increasing is the level of connectivity not only between us as a human race but in the devices that we use to do almost everything in our daily lives. The phenomenon of the Internet of Things represents this trend.

The second trend isn’t news to anyone either, so I won’t waste your time going into the details. Just look at the growing list of headlines about cyber breaches across government and industry worldwide. Figure 2 below depicts the most recent list of cyber breaches – it’s a mess! And I believe it’s going to get worse before it gets better. You’ve all heard the tired (but, nonetheless, true) saying, “It’s not a matter of if, but when.” The trend is alarming; and, no matter whether you sit in the public or private sector, you have to understand that the cyberthreat is a serious problem, representing an imperative for change if we are going to be able to continue to place trust in all the opportunity that the digital age promises.


Figure 2
(From “Information is Beautiful” website)


Using Figure 3 below as a reference, we must “flip the scales,” or at least rebalance them, to improve the cybersecurity posture that we choose to live with today. Let me explain what I mean, using the concept model I described above, and step through the implications via the categories of Threat, Policy and Strategy, Organizational and Architectural Structure, and finally Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (or TTP).



Figure 3


We have a math problem that is giving today’s cyberthreats a significant advantage over our ability to secure and defend our networks. This problem pits a growing adversary marketplace – that leverages information sharing, automation and the cloud at increasing speed and decreasing costs – against the cybersecurity community, which is slow, clumsy, largely manual and increasingly expensive.

Part of the reason we have this math problem is due to legacy thinking and resulting policies that heavily favor opportunity and convenience over security and risk management rather than a more balanced approach toward both. Flipping the policy scale from a “trust everything” to a Zero Trust model (“never trust, always verify”) will help to flip the scales on the attacker/defender math problem.

To change the policy balance and drive a real strategy that aligns limited resources and methods to achieve results also requires that leaders enter the decision-making forum when it comes to cybersecurity. A successful organization enables wise leadership to make decisions through collaboration between their IT and cybersecurity experts, working work in tandem to provide precise, accurate and clear recommendations. This is how the leadership of an organization can drive successful policy and strategy. It is also how the leadership and tech teams can work toward common goals and routinely demonstrate progress with real, measureable results.

Finally, cybersecurity success in the digital age requires a new way of thinking about our TTP. Implementing real change requires rebalancing performance and security together, just as we also rebalance security and privacy together, empowering IT and cybersecurity teams to partner in a win-win dynamic, rather than pitting one community against the other with win-lose priorities. This is how an organization can go about safely enabling the high performance of its users, using the applications and content the organization requires to do its vital functions, including fixed, mobile and virtual capabilities throughout the organization’s enterprise, from the cloud to the network to the endpoint device – BYOD or otherwise.


THREAT: Looking at this concept from a threat perspective, we all know that, today, the Attacker has a distinct advantage over the Defender. That’s not news, and we all know that; but let’s look at why that is true and why it’s only going to get worse unless we do something to “flip the scales” or at least rebalance them toward a better security posture than we choose to live with today.

This is what our CEO at Palo Alto Networks, Mark McLaughlin, calls a math problem. Due to the decreasing cost of automation and cloud-based capabilities, a growing marketplace of threat actor information sharing, and the ever-increasing attack surface with vulnerabilities growing in proportion due to the “Internet of Things” phenomenon, the Attacker’s job is getting cheaper and easier ever day. The Attacker only has to be successful once to get into your network and accomplish his or her nefarious intentions.

On the other hand, the Defender has to be everywhere, all the time. Additionally, the Defender, who typically uses manual procedures to respond, doesn’t usually detect the threat in his or her networks until months or even years have passed (the average detection time is more than 6 months according to most cyberthreat research and analysis). This is very costly in terms of time, manpower, technology, complexity, reputation, brand and, of course, money.

To illustrate further, I’d like to use a few numbers to tell a story about the world of protecting your business from cyberattacks and this math problem. I got these numbers from our Regional CSO for Europe and the Middle East, Greg Day.

In 2015, the Application Usage Threat Report from Palo Alto Networks saw 675,000 distinct threats, across almost 3000 applications. These are frightening statistics. But what does this actually mean in real terms to your business, to your team, or to you personally?

To get a feel for that kind of meaning, you need context that’s relevant to your world, so let me give you another number – 1.5 million. According analysts Frost and Sullivan, this will be the shortfall of cybersecurity professionals by 2020.

This demand outstripping supply is good news if you’re a security professional looking for a job, but bad news if you are trying to recruit cybersecurity professionals into your organization or retain your existing workforce. Many organizations have a model that is becoming harder and harder to sustain in this world of more threats and less security staff at the ready.

Who are these Defenders? CISOs and other IT security professionals, of course, defend their organization – against what, though? Today, it’s not just an attacker; it’s a marketplace, and that means groups of people sharing best practices with each other –trading with each other.

A few years ago some governments were investing huge amounts of resources to develop incredibly sophisticated attack approaches. Today anyone can purchase the same attack kit online for a few dollars, complete with instructions and a how to get started video.

This is why it’s getting easier for Attackers: because of their decreasing costs and the abundance of resources available to them. They only have to be successful once to win, but this is probably a tiny percentage of their attack attempts. Contrast that with the CISO, who has to successfully defend 100 percent of the time. Attackers are crowdsourcing, yet CISOs are on their own.

I’d like to show you, in the following sections of the concept model, how many leaders and security professionals are taking action to alter their defensive model to take advantage of the valuable assets they already have – in other words, “flipping the scales” to give the Defender more of an advantage than he or she has today.

POLICY: The legacy view is that technology is driven by opportunity and convenience (which are built-in) while security and risk management chase from behind trying to catch up (and are, therefore, bolted-on afterwards).

The environment, as shown in Figure 2 above and captured in almost daily headlines about the latest breaches, is changing this balance; but the change is slow and uneven. This change is beginning to drive a need to bring the scales in Figure 3 to a better, more responsible balance.

This includes changing a “left side of the scale” assumption that you’re safe, to a “right side of the scale” assumption that the threat is going to get in, if it hasn’t already, resulting in the need for a Zero Trust environment.

All of the security leaders we talk to want to reduce the workload on their organization. Getting back to the math problem from earlier, here’s another number – 65,000. Like some the earlier numbers I used, this one also comes from Greg Day, and it identifies some of the reasons the network defender’s workload is so big.

When the Internet was conceived, that was the number of ports of communication that people thought might be needed for all the different traffic and protocols. This provided lots of scope and scale for flexibility.

Today we use very few of these traditional ports. Most of the traffic consists of either email or web-based protocols; however, within these, there are now thousands of Internet applications and each has its own sub-protocols.

You can block all these ports; but, since almost all the traffic comes through these same few ports, you cannot just block them. Using traditional technology, you have to trust these ports, or you would block out all the traffic you need to run your business.

This policy means that security professionals have to program their legacy firewalls to block traffic using rules that are based on where traffic is coming from, where it’s going to, and what type of traffic it is. And, of course, your organization wants to do new things all the time, so the policies have to change all the time.

So, your starting position is to trust all the traffic going through these few ports. Then you have to block traffic using policies – lots of policies. Policies on top of policies. Rules on top of rules. It’s very difficult to even understand what the policies and rules from the past did and if the new policies and rules conflict in any way. This approach is very costly, labor-intensive and ineffective because it’s using this old frame of reference that only adds complexity and cost to the equation, neither of which are your friends as a cybersecurity professional.

The only way to fix this is to design a totally new type of technology using a different frame of reference – one based on how we use the Internet today. You need technology that understands modern Internet usage and can identify each of the applications that effectively uses its own protocols over the few trusted ports each business has enabled today. This is exactly why Palo Alto Networks has engineered its next-generation firewalls to safely enable the applications and content required by an organization’s users, whether fixed, mobile or virtual, to do the vital functions required for the mission or business (more on this in the TTP portion below).

The balance on the right side of the policy scale is called a Zero Trust model. Trust nothing unless it’s defined as part of how you operate your business. This essential capability is unique. It also allows you to create rules that determine what traffic can flow into your organization. But, instead of being based on the port, the type of traffic, where it’s from, and where it’s going to, it’s based on who wants to communicate and what they want to do. That means the applications and content that they want to use.

The end result is that it’s easy for you to define your company’s way of doing business because you need far fewer policies and they are relevant to how your organization operates. They also make sense, and you can see your security policy written in black and white.

It’s more effective because your starting point is Zero Trust rather than trust everything, and it understands the sub-protocols that modern web applications use. It’s easy to follow and much less work.

ORGANIZATION: The decision-making forum when it comes to dealing with cyberthreats has traditionally been within the technical (CIO/CISO/CSO) community, but the exploding threat problem along with the changing balance between opportunity/convenience and risk are driving the decision-making forums into C-Suites and boardrooms; no longer are they solely within the purview of the IT community. This is becoming and, in more and more cases, has already become a leadership issue rather than just a technical one. So this scale has already begun to flip – and that’s a good thing!

Leadership is one of the most critical aspects of this imperative about changing the balance on these scales and creating an environment where those in the business of driving cybersecurity within an organization can begin to acquire an advantage over the threat.

Leadership from the top drives the prioritization of resources and assets, enables an effective strategy that aligns the ways and means to achieve real goals, and requires that the team routinely bring back results that can be measured in relationship to the bottom line, whether you are a business or a national security organization.

This changing balance within the decision-making forum in no way diminishes the role of the technical community in the overall decision process. The tech community must take greater care than ever before to educate their leadership in clear, accurate ways so that wise decision-making is the result.

Let’s face it – not all of our senior executives have the technical background to readily comprehend all of the details required to address what can be a very mysterious and complex problem set. It’s incumbent on the leader’s technical experts to explain issues in plain English to the maximum extent possible.

Use of analogies can be tempting; and, sometimes, that may be a good way to explain something that is familiar to a leader’s background and experience. But beware, the technology environment associated with cyberspace has some of the most significant distinctions that I’ve personally ever witnessed when compared to the traditional physical “domains.”

Scale, speed, and complexity (especially given the blurring of lines between human interaction with cyberspace and the various layers of technical, logical, physical and geographic segments) make analogies dangerous because, inevitably, the analogy falls apart at some point, and senior executives who think they understand what decision to make based on an imprecise analogy can be making serious mistakes.

TTP: So why is it that it seems we continue to lose, and the problem is getting worse and not better? Why haven’t we all had a “Cyber Pearl Harbor” or “Cyber 9/11” epiphany? From what I can see, it’s because there is still, what I believe to be, a false narrative about the balance between security and performance – that you can only increase one at the expense of the other.

This has traditionally been described as a “win-lose” dynamic.  And, in the world of business just as in the world of national and economic security, performance always wins, which is why most CISOs report to CIOs.  And when they don’t, it’s always a win-lose proposition pitting one community against another.

The fact is that, in this new environment, security and performance go hand in hand.  So how do we enable a “win-win” dynamic? How do we put security into a model that safely and effectively ENABLES performance, across all users, using all their applications, all their content, including mobile and virtual devices? Is that even possible? If your cybersecurity solution provider isn’t working toward that objective, shouldn’t they be?

As we saw in the threat discussion above, organizations are faced with the situation where the attacker has low costs and automation. And the defender has high costs and human beings performing manual tasks.

This is why leaders are looking for another way because this model is hard to sustain. Perhaps it is even unsustainable.

Imagine if you could change the balance. At the moment this precious resource – your staff – is focused mostly on discovery. Taking productive business action is secondary. This model gives a poor return. What if your people only took productive business action and the discovery part was automated? That model would give you a much higher return. More on manual vs. automated in one of my next blog posts about other imperatives for cybersecurity success in the digital age.

One thing that I think can help us to pursue more of a win-win dynamic is to speak with more clarity and accuracy about what we are trying to do with information sharing in order to provide “cyber” security and distinguish that from some of today’s conflated ideas about providing “traditional” security and the associated “surveillance” issues that get carelessly lumped into the cybersecurity discussions.

So in addition to the false narrative about performance vs. security, I think there's another false narrative about security vs. privacy. In the cybersecurity world, unlike the world of counterterrorism and surveillance issues, security ensures privacy – it doesn't detract from it! For example, we should begin to clearly identify exactly what kind of cyberthreat information needs to be shared, and how a narrow focus on that specific information has little (or maybe even nothing) to do with privacy-related information.

I’ll cover more about information sharing in Imperative #4; but, for now, let me summarize the key tenets of this first imperative about “flipping the scales.”


Cybersecurity success in the digital age requires us to take action to change several important dynamics that are currently out of balance.

Legacy thinking and resulting policies put the cybersecurity community on the wrong side of a math problem when it comes to the threat, and in a win-lose dynamic with both the IT community and our leadership when it comes to choosing between performance and security. We have to “flip these scales,” and this effort must be driven by the organization’s leadership with the active participation of the IT and cybersecurity communities working toward common goals within an organization.

We also need to start throwing the weight of our technology, processes and people on the side of the scales favoring next-generation technology that recognizes the way the Internet works today, leverages the powerful advantage that automation can bring to discovering threats on a wider scale and in reduced time, and saves our most precious resource – our people – to do what only people can do instead of spending all of our resources in “cleanup on aisle 9” mode.

Next in this blog series will be Imperative #2 for cybersecurity success in the digital age … We Must Broaden Our Focus in Order to Sharpen Our Actions.


Written by John A. Davis, Major General (Retired) United States Army, and Vice President and Federal Chief Security Officer (CSO) for Palo Alto Networks

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