Five Thoughts from the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection

February 19, 2015

By Nate Fick, CEO of Endgame, a presenting company at The Montgomery Summit 2015. 

The Obama Administration deserves credit for putting together the first-ever White House summit on cybersecurity on Friday and – contrary to what some media coverage may lead you to believe – the U.S. private sector mostly deserves credit for showing up.

Rather than offer yet another perspective on how to structure the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center (CTIIC), or speculate on what it means that this or that CEO didn’t attend, I thought I’d just share a few thoughts from a day at Stanford that was packed with conversations with colleagues from across the government, the security industry, and the nation’s critical infrastructure.

1. More than most industries, the security community really is a community and must be bound by trust. Examples of this oft-overlooked reality were abundant: government officials pledging that “the U.S. government will not leave the private sector to fend for itself” and that our actions should be guided by “a shared approach” as a basic, guiding principle; Palo Alto Networks CEO Mark McLaughlin plugging the much-needed Cyber Threat Alliance, a voluntary network of security companies sharing threat intelligence for the good of all; Facebook CISO Joe Sullivan stressing the importance of humility, of talking openly about security failures, and about information security as a field that’s ultimately about helping people. Many of the day’s conversations kept coming back to trust – both the magnitude of what we can accomplish when we have it, and the paralyzing effect of its absence.

2. All companies are now tech companies. Home Depot doesn’t just sell hammers, and even small businesses have learned the great lesson of the past decade’s dev-ops revolution: outsource any software you don’t write yourself by moving it to the cloud and putting the security responsibility on the vendor. An interesting corollary to this is whether, as larger companies get more capable with their security, we will see hackers moving down-market to target smaller companies in increasingly sophisticated ways. This is sobering because scoping the magnitude of the challenge before us leads to the conclusion that it includes…well…everything.

3. Our adversaries will continue getting better partly because we will continue getting better. There’s a nuance here that isn’t captured in the simple notion that higher walls only beget taller ladders. An example from the military world is that Iraq’s insurgents became vastly more capable between 2003 and 2007 because they spent those four years sharpening their blades on a very hard stone: us. So consider, for example, the challenge facing new payments companies today: you’re fighting the guys who cut their teeth against PayPal fifteen years ago, and you’re doing it with a tiny number of defenders since you’re only a start-up, not with the major resources of PayPal’s current security team. Submitting to an “arms race” mentality—or quitting the race altogether—isn’t the answer. But this reality does put the security bar higher and higher for new ventures, and suggests that competition for experienced security talent will only grow more heated.

4. Too many policy-makers are still a long way from basic fluency in this field. That’s intended more as observation than criticism. It takes time to build a deep reservoir of talent in any field of endeavor – across the whole pipeline from funding basic research in science and technology, through nurturing the ecosystem of analysts and writers who can inform a robust conversation about occasionally arcane topics, to reaping the benefits of multi-generational experience where newer practitioners can learn from the battle scars of those who came before them. The traditional defense community has this, as do tax policy, health care policy, and most other major areas of public-private collaboration. It’ll come in the cyber arena too. What worries me, though, is that too many policy makers, when they refer to “the private sector” in this context, seem to imply either that it’s less important than the government, or even (bizarrely) that it’s smaller than the government. The government has a massively important role in cyber security, but it isn’t the whole game, and it probably isn’t even most of the game.

5. Information sharing is only a means to an end. If one of the day’s two major themes was “trust,” then the other was “information sharing.” Yes, our security is only as good as the data we have. Yes, there can be a “neighborhood watch-like” network effect in sharing threat intelligence. Yes, the sharing needs to happen across multiple axes: public to public, public to private, and private to private. But all of that sharing will be for naught if it doesn’t lead to some kind of effective action – across people, process, and technology. (Remember that “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” was the heading of the President’s daily briefing from the CIA on August 6, 2001…) The Summit was one action, and the security community needs to take many, many more.


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