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My very first assignment for my very first
magazine in this industry was on cybersecurity. This was a fairly nascent field back then—
consumer devices had just started to filter
their way into the factories, plant equipment
had just started to filter its way onto the Internet. The IIo T hadn’t even been named yet.
Honestly, it seemed like the perfect time to
start the cybersecurity conversation. Cover the bases when everyone is just starting to expand the risk, right?
So, within a week I got myself to an event run by one of the
largest industrial companies in the world—which had recently been
hit by one of the highest profile industrial hacks in the world. And
within hours, I found myself in a one-on-one interview with a
high-ranking executive at the company who was ready to talk about
anything I wanted.
Everything was perfect: setting, topic, source.
So I went ahead and asked: Tell me about your hack. Tell me
what you’ve learned. Tell me what the industry should do.
The question was met with a kind of shocked silence. Handlers
made hasty eye contact, the executive shifted, everything got very
uncomfortable. I was the dinner guest at the fancy party using all
the wrong forks.
Eventually, I got some vague answers, of course. The executive did
his best to answer the questions within the confines of the permit-table corporate lines. But throughout the conversation, some things
were made extremely clear: This is not something they talked about;
this is not something anyone talked about.
Later, much later, this awkward silence was finally explained to me.
Apparently, it’s part of what was described as a “gentleman’s
agreement” in the industry not to discuss or directly acknowledge
any hack or breach of any system, even when everybody already
knows it happened.
As far as I can tell, the rationale for this comes down to two things.
First, acknowledging a successful hack highlights vulnerabilities for
companies that other hackers can attempt to further exploit. And
second, news of hacks tends to scare away customers and investors.
So it’s best for everyone just to turn one’s eye away politely and
pretend it never happened. Let the company clean up its mess and
we can all carry on blissfully forward.
All these years later, after learning this lesson over and over and
over again, I still can’t accept it. It still seems absolutely crazy.
In every other part of the manufacturing industry, failures are the
most valuable teaching tool. They’re gold. Every downtime event,
every production problem or quality issue is a chance to improve
the system, a chance to develop new best practices and better SOPs.
More to the point: those lessons are shared throughout the industry;
it’s how it all works, it’s how we all stay in business.
But for cybersecurity, we break this precedent. We turn away, we
discuss it with hushed voices, absorbing the shame of it all alone.
Consequently, no one learns a thing.
I often compare this to safety. There was a time when accidents
were embarrassing secrets, too. A time when companies hid their
injuries to protect their reputations. Manufacturing was dangerous,
they said. Of course people will get hurt; there’s nothing they can
do about it.
But when policy changed and they suddenly had to report accidents, it turned out there was a whole lot they could do about it
and everyone got very busy taking safety very seriously.
We seem to be in the same position in terms of cybersecurity
today. As the IIo T net spreads and as malware proliferates, the
issue will only get direr.
It’s time now to break this gentlemen’s agreement. It’s time to
change the story, to take this issue seriously and apply the full
focus and problem-solving might of the industry before the next
catastrophe strikes. And it all starts with one simple step: we have
to talk about cybersecurity.
It’s Time to Talk about Cybersecurity