If I demand you jump off the roof and fly, and you say no, can I call you a defeatist? What would you think? To a reasonable person it would be insane to associate this attitude with being a defeatist. There are certain expectations that fall within the confines of reality. Expecting things to happen outside of those rules is reckless and can often be dangerous.
Yet in the universe of cybersecurity we do this constantly. Anyone who doesn’t pretend we can fix problems is a defeatist and part of the problem. We just have to work harder and not claim something can’t be done, that’s how we’ll fix everything! After being called a defeatist during a discussion, I decided to write some things down. We spend a lot of time trying to fly off of roofs instead of looking for practical realistic solutions for our security problems.
The way cybersecurity works today someone will say “this is a problem”. Maybe it’s IoT, or ransomware, or antivirus, secure coding, security vulnerabilities; whatever, pick something, there’s plenty to choose from. It’s rarely in a general context though, it will be sort of specific, for example “we have to teach developers how to stop adding security flaws to software”. Someone else will say “we can’t fix that”, then they get called a defeatist for being negative and it’s assumed the defeatists are the problem. The real problem is they’re not wrong. It can’t be fixed. We will never see humans write error free code, there is no amount of training we can give them. Pretending it can is what’s dangerous. Pretending we can fix problems we can’t is lying.
The world isn’t fairy dust and rainbows. We can’t wish for more security and get it. We can’t claim to be working on a problem if we have no clue what it is or how to fix it. I’ll pick on IoT for a moment. How many security IoT “experts” exist now? The number is non trivial. Does anyone have any ideas how to understand the IoT security problems? Talking about how to fix IoT doesn’t make sense today, we don’t even really understand what’s wrong. Is the problem devices that never get updates? What about poor authentication? Maybe managing the devices is the problem? It’s not one thing, it’s a lot of things put together in a martini shaker, shook up, then dumped out in a heap. We can’t fix IoT because we don’t know what it even is in many instances. I’m not a defeatist, I’m trying to live in reality and think about the actual problems. It’s a lot easier to focus on solutions for problems you don’t understand. You will find a solution, those solutions won’t make sense though.
So what do we do now? There isn’t a quick answer, there isn’t an easy answer. The first step is to admit you have a problem though. Defeatists are a real thing, there’s no question about it. The trick is to look at the people who might be claiming something can’t be fixed. Are they giving up, or are they trying to reframe the conversation? If you declare them a defeatist, the conversation is now over, you killed it. On the other side of the coin, pretending things are fine is more dangerous than giving up, you’re living in a fantasy. The only correct solution is reality based security. Have honest and real conversations, don’t be afraid to ask hard questions, don’t be afraid to declare something unfixable. An unfixable problem is really just one that needs new ideas.
You can’t fly off the roof, but trampolines are pretty awesome.