The Boy Who Cried Cyber Pearl Harbor

There is, yet again, someone in the news talking about a cyber Pearl Harbor.

I wanted to offer a few points of perspective.

First, on December 6th, 1941, the United States was at peace. There were worries about the future, but no belief that a major attack was imminent, and certainly not a sneak attack. Today, it’s very clear that successful attacks are a regular and effectively accepted part of the landscape. (I’ll come back to the accepted part.)

Second, insanity. One excellent definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Enough said? Maybe not. People have been using this same metaphor since at least 1991 (thanks to @mattdevost for the link). So those Zeros have got to be the slowest cyber-planes in the history of the cybers. So it’s insanity to keep using the metaphor, but it’s also insanity to expect that the same approaches that have brought us where we are.

Prime amongst the ideas that we need to jettison is that we can get better in an ivory tower, or a secret fusion center where top men are thinking hard about the problem.

We need to learn from each other’s experiences and mistakes. If we want to avoid having the Tacoma Narrows bridge fall again we need to understand what went wrong. When our understanding is based on secret analysis by top men, we’re forced to hope that they got the analysis right. When they show their work, we can assess it. When they talk about a specific bridge, we can bring additional knowledge and perspective to bear.

For twenty years, we’ve been hearing about these problems in these old school ways, and we’re still hearing about the same problems and the same risks.

We’ve been seeing systems compromised, and accepting it.

We need to stop talking about Pearl Harbor, and start talking about Aurora and its other victims. We need to stop talking about Pearl Harbor, and start talking about RSA, not in terms of cyber-ninjas, but about social engineering, the difficulties of upgrading or the value of defense in depth. We need to stop talking about Pearl Harbor and start talking about Buckshot Yankee, and perhaps why all those SIPRnet systems go unpatched. We need to stop talking about the Gawker breach passwords, and start talking about how they got out.

We need to stop talking in metaphors and start talking specifics.

PS: If you want me to go first, ok. Here ya go.

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