Security Experts:

Changing the Disclosure Shame Culture

For Cyberdefense to Progress, We Must Break Through the Cultural Barrier of Breach Disclosure Shame

Although we repeatedly hear that cyber adversaries have an upper hand due to the sharing and rapid dissemination of tools, techniques, and intelligence among like-minded attackers, the hard-earned lessons gained by defenders are tightly closeted — most often under a shroud of shame and reluctantly disclosed, if ever. For cyberdefense to progress, we must break through the cultural barrier of disclosure shame.

Despite most enterprises adopting an “assumed breach” approach to securing their business, the successes and investments that lead to uncovering breaches are too often thoroughly undermined by the perception of having failed to preemptively protect the environment.

Multiple longstanding movements aid the sharing of selective artifacts of an attack – most often those that were successfully thwarted or captured using generic blocking technologies. These artifacts (e.g. malware and phishing samples) and their associated telemetry (e.g. detonation logs) are useful from a threat intelligence perspective and are increasingly consumed with greater agility by both investigative and blocking protection systems, but they can’t communicate the important dimensions needed to help prevent the next novel threat or attack vector. Missing is the technical biopsy of the entire chain of events that resulted in a system compromise – in particular, what defensive or detection apparatus worked and what didn’t.

Security teams gain snippets of insight from defensive failures through public breach disclosures or the investigative reporting that follows large-scale and brand-name hacks. The stigma of past public disclosures causes most companies to go dark when a breach is detected and to resurface months later only after satisfying themselves that similar weaknesses have been internally dealt with – through technology or leadership change. That shroud of darkness is arguably a critical time in which disseminating details is the most valuable to other defenders around the globe.

In closed-door, invite-only forums, there is more willingness to share additional information about security failures – in more detail and in a timelier manner – but they are infrequent and highly localized. In fact, there are many parallels with how TV portrays an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – e.g., “My name is Beth and I’ve been breached for 6 months …” – with an aura of shame, acknowledgement of past missteps, and hope for future well-being.

New scoring systems coming to market make it easier for organizations to both understand and monitor changes in their own enterprise security ecosystem. At the moment there are as many defense scoring systems as there are vendors that include them, but I believe that they’ll consolidate rapidly this year – most likely following the lead of the largest public cloud providers. It is exciting to meet with CISOs and other security leaders, openly comparing their scores and sharing tips on how they’re looking to improve them. I had not realized that gamification could be such a blessing to defenders.

Although defense scoring lowers the barrier to sharing defensive success insights, it does not yet address the insights gained from learning from others’ failures and the stigma of a breach.

Upon “going dark” after a breach detection, the security products vendors used within the compromised environment are similarly shut out – at precisely the time they can potentially add the most value to both the victim and the wider defensive ecosystem. It is in vendors’ best interest to leverage both their engineering and security research teams to promptly dissect and understand failures in their detection apparatus or missed capabilities in defending any chained or sequenced attack – and CISOs should leverage that deep expertise to complement their internal efforts as soon as they can.

With today’s complex and rapidly changing ecosystem of layered defenses, suite integrations, data connectors, automated response orchestration, policy configurations, and hybrid environments, breach response to a new threat or attack technique is rarely distilled down to adding a new detection signature or firewall rule. 

I thoroughly recommend a war room approach, with technical representatives from the vendors of the security products the organization deployed and had anticipated would directly or indirectly discover and protect against the overall threat. Those vendors should be charged with both optimizing existing product capabilities (that may have been misconfigured, new, or poorly understood) within the compromised environment and, if needed, the coordination and acceleration of engineered updates or feature capabilities to prevent any repeated and related attack. Leverage the R&D expertise of your security vendors – you’ve probably already paid for it!

It should not be a blame game (unless product inadequacies really are to blame!) – rather, the collective team should identify optimal routes to earlier detection and prevention, both short term and long term.

Bringing trusted vendors into the breach equation early on should accelerate a stable and robust threat response. 

The stigma of a breach can be shared with vendors and any associated public shame lessens with rapid threat response. The story of how a CISO and her vendors collectively and dynamically responded to a new threat, and how that knowledge was timely shared and incorporated into their products for all to benefit, is an incredibly strong one.

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Gunter Ollmann is currently the CSO of Microsoft’s Cloud and AI Security division. He is a seasoned information security leader who has defined and trailblazed new security markets through his work with globally recognized companies, including Microsoft and IBM X-Force, and startups, including IOActive and Damballa. As a seasoned C-level executive and technologist, Mr. Ollmann has been instrumental in several dozen M&A deals (as acqui-hire, acquirer, consultant, or adviser) ranging from tens-of-millions to billion dollar transactions.