Opinion

Coronavirus as a case study for cybersecurity

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a perfect case study for cybersecurity. Why? The type and depth of response needed to battle a pandemic is similar to the level and depth of response needed to ward off cyberattacks. Moreover, in each scenario, some who are infected will survive while others, unfortunately, will succumb to their infections.

The incidence of COVID-19 around the world and the uneven recovery we are witnessing among those infected demonstrates the value of responding with immediacy and a diverse array of solutions.

The World Health Organization and local health experts are recommending routine hygiene prevention methods such as hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing. Federal, state and local governments have also enacted a range of travel restrictions to slow the spread of the disease in the United States and abroad. On the front lines, health care workers are treating COVID-19 positive patients with every tool at their disposal.

In computer science, enacting a varied approach like this is called “creating a culture of cybersecurity.” It starts by training groups of people about the value of having safer interactions in cyberspace and providing them with effective tools to do so. Then, it expands to include organizational processes, protocols and resources to detect, prevent and respond to cyber-attacks.

But protecting a network from cyberattacks goes beyond good online habits. Experts must also pay attention to how software systems are secured from the inside out.

What we know about COVID-19 is that those who fall ill but have stronger defenses rely on their resiliency to overcome their infections. Unfortunately, those with weaker systems often do not have the tools to fight back. During a pandemic, the biological diversity of human immune systems is clearly on display.

In contrast, computers are much less diverse. A single software vulnerability impacted by a devastating cyberattack can cause the compromise of a very large, vulnerable group. This impact could be mitigated by expanding software diversity in cyberspace.

Security experts have recently started to explore the use of mathematical models like the models that health experts are using to describe the spread of the COVID-19. Think of them as cyber epidemiological models but better known as cybersecurity dynamics models. These models can be used to predict a virus’ spread but also to identify possible combinations of bad actors within a system.

Over time, cybersecurity experts have created more elastic or flexible models. Likewise, the industry’s focus has moved from reactive planning to proactive methods that protect a network’s infrastructure.

To strengthen their defense strategies, cyber defenders should place more focus on frameworks that accommodate available cyber epidemiological models. These models provide deep insights that can be used to disrupt the spread of cyberattacks in real-time, right at their entry points.

Many computer scientists around the world have started to pursue this research, known as cyber agility. These experts are championing the understanding, importance and application of cyber agility strategies into governments’ and organizations’ cyber response plans.

Biological and cyber viruses have a lot in common. While it may seem odd to assess methodologies in seemingly different disciplines — for example, epidemiology and cybersecurity — analyses like these provide experts with new and valuable insights that can lead to creative and impactful solutions.

Shouhuai Xu is a professor of computer science at The University of Texas at San Antonio. He leads the UTSA Laboratory for Cybersecurity Dynamics, which pioneered the nation’s first Cyber Agility Framework (CFA).

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