U.S. Response to SolarWinds Cyber Penetrations: A Good Defense Is the Best Offense

Meanwhile, our networks are intricately interconnected, but we organize our defense into silo after silo. Government defenses are scattered across different agencies, companies are reluctant to share news of breaches and our intelligence agencies are pointed outwards. No one has a full view of the battlefield. Companies view cyber defense as a burdensome cost. Government budgets favor offense, and even when new funds are allocated to cyber defense, the focus is on securing government systems, not improving the fundamental security of larger and more vulnerable private sector infrastructure.

How might we better address our systemic national cyber vulnerability?

First, government efforts to bolster defense should focus on the private sector, which builds, owns, runs and is responsible for most of our cyber infrastructure. Better incentives are needed to improve security practices and culture. Also needed are disincentives that extract a cost for putting others at risk. Some elements in this regard might include:

·  Federal security standards: Apply minimum federal security standards for software and devices, much like with consumer safety products. Manufacturers will complain, as did auto companies with safety regulations, but progress is unlikely without efforts to build more secure components of our cyber infrastructure.

·  Tort law: Companies that negligently engineer insecure systems and devices should be held liable. In too many cases, cost-cutting and dismissal of basic security elements put everyone at risk. Producers of hardware and software have a particular responsibility in this regard and should not be able to blithely pass on cyber risk to millions with no fear of consequence.

·  Intelligence sharing: Threat information needs to flow seamlessly and instantly across private and public networks but is instead splintered by classification, commercial interest, legal restrictions and cultural inclinations to hide instead of share. There should be a federal requirement to report cyber security breaches. Rarely is only one company a victim of any given attack, and robust reporting requirements could aid early detection and mitigation. Breach transparency would also incentivize good security practice and provide a competitive advantage to companies that protect their customers and the cyber commons.

We are in a new “Long War,” an ambient cyber conflict that will play out over decades against multiple adversaries. This is a conflict where the best offense may be a good defense. Limiting the potential harm adversaries can impose on us, while retaining the ability to inflict asymmetric damage, offers the best hope of bolstering U.S. national security and creating a world of cyber deterrence and restraint. Hopefully, SolarWinds marks the inflection point of a pivot to a more effective defense-based national cyber strategy.

Paul Kolbe is the director of the Intelligence Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. The article, originally published in Russia Matters, is published here courtesy of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Russia Matters.