7min. read

We’ve all seen movies and TV shows where SWAT teams or military forces take heroic steps to safeguard lives and property in the event of a bomb threat. Chief among the defensive efforts they put in place are ways to reduce the impact of a potential explosion—reducing the blast surface. Often, they use machines such as remote-controlled robots to safeguard their human team members. Obviously, they want to prevent the blast from happening in the first place, but at the very least, they want to ensure they can mitigate its impact as much as possible.

The same approach holds true for thwarting cybersecurity attacks, particularly in the “target-rich” financial services industry. Although financial services firms have often been in the forefront of adopting cybersecurity tools, technologies and processes because of the nature of their industry—after all, it’s where the money is—more needs to be done. The bad guys are relentless, while also increasingly sophisticated in their attacks.

This has put intensified pressure on the financial industry to not just adopt a Zero Trust model of cybersecurity protection, but to aggressively embrace the ideals of Zero Trust: Trust nothing and no one, log everything, and invest heavily to validate users and machines.

A Ripe Target

It may seem obvious to those of us in this vertical market, but it bears repeating: The financial services sector may be the single-most-targeted industry for cyberattacks. A recent headline from an IDC report stated it bluntly: The financial industry is more susceptible to IS infrastructure security breaches than other industries.

The IDC data is stark: 96% of IT and security professionals said their organization has been attacked by viruses, and the financial industry is 50% more likely to be targeted for unauthorized-use attacks than are organizations in all other industries. The IDC analyst authoring the report said it well: “For these (financial services) companies, security is not a value-added feature. It’s a core requirement for conducting business.”

While the financial services industry has always been an attractive target for hackers, the impact of how work has changed during COVID-19 has raised the stakes even higher. Research done with UK-based IT and security professionals points out that most believe COVID-induced work-from-home practices and remote work are accelerating attack risks in the financial services industry.

I’m sure no one was surprised by these revelations, given the attractiveness of financial services data, such as customer records and personally identifiable information…let alone the ability to actually steal money and other financial assets. Many of us also know that cyber thieves are using “machines” to do their dirty work, such as automated attack tools, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.

Another challenge is that our industry has an increased use of what I call “ephemeral computing,” such as cloud services and on demand technology services. While cloud is arguably more secure than any single organization’s data centre, misconfigurations and oversight can leave an organization’s crown jewel data exposed in public, as we’ve seen with an increased number of highly public stories. Many organizations still apply manual procedures to highly automated ephemeral technology.

Using Zero Trust To Reduce Your Blast Surface

Undoubtedly, all CISOs reading this article, as well as nearly all business leaders and board members, are well aware of the importance of Zero Trust. By starting with an assumption that we must view any attempt to access information with suspicion and whose credentials must be validated, we take the first step toward reducing the blast surface.

But in order to fully exploit the benefits of a Zero Trust framework, financial services organizations need to keep in mind that Zero Trust is not an event—it’s a journey. You must start with an initial step, and proceed with painstaking discipline and a willingness to abide by the key principles of Zero Trust.

Specifically, financial services companies must:

  • Trust nothing and no one. Even something as simple as logging onto the network must be treated with suspicion and a wary eye. That’s why multi-factor authentication must be a starting point for a Zero Trust philosophy, and should become increasingly sophisticated through the use of such techniques as biometric authentication and frequent password changes.
  • Log everything. If you accept the assumption that hackers will occasionally succeed at getting through your initial defenses, you must have a timely, accurate and complete record of all login attacks, user behavior and data movement.
  • Invest aggressively in tools, technologies and practices that validate both users and machines. Not only are the hackers getting smarter in hiding their own identities by simulating those of authorized users, they also are hiding the true nature of their machines. As I mentioned earlier, they are becoming prime users of automated tools and algorithms to expand their ability to compromise systems and exfiltrate data.

Security is Everyone’s Business—But Someone Has To Take the Lead

One of the key elements of Zero Trust is that it’s not just the responsibility of the information security and IT teams to implement, manage and review. The entire organization must have a Zero Trust commitment, especially in the financial services sector where we have so many touchpoints, and the regulatory, legal, operational and brand risks of messing up can be devastating.

In fact, Zero Trust is so essential to a successful cybersecurity defense in financial services that CEOs, CFOs and other non-technical C-suite executives must set the right example. The risk management team alone can’t do it because they are often seen as the “office of No,” often viewed with scorn by many rank-and-file employees. Leadership must accept ownership of Zero Trust, and must endorse full-bodied investment in Zero Trust tools, technologies, services and processes. Business executives sponsoring new initiatives can protect their larger organizations by inspecting and insisting on allocating sufficient funding to go towards information security as part of the initiative.

It’s also important for leadership to be willing to commit to investments in security automation (our own machines) to combat the smart tools used by hackers. That’s because we, as an industry, still rely too much on manual, human-powered processes. Even though our organizations all benefit from having smart, hard-working and dedicated professionals watching out for our cybersecurity, that’s not a match for the machine-centric approach cyber thieves are taking.

We have to use machines to do more real-time work, such as event analysis and remediation or studying anomalous network and user behavior. In essence, we must use machines to fight the other guys’ machines, or we risk falling into a very bad position—playing catch-up when every second counts. The more manual your approach is to cybersecurity, the more at risk you are. This is an important precept of Zero Trust, as well: automate as much as possible to limit the impact if and when a breach occurs.

I don’t want to kid anyone. Zero Trust, alone, won’t prevent financial services organizations from being breached. You do need to invest not only in powerful technology tools, subscription services and human expertise, but also in smart processes. Adopting a Zero Trust mindset, and the discipline and hygiene that go along with it, will better protect your organization by dramatically reducing the blast surface.

Tarun Khandelwal is an executive security advisor to the financial services industry and the former Head of Security Architecture at CIBC.