Hackers around the globe are smart: they know that it isn’t just good code that helps them break into systems; it’s also about understanding—and preying upon—human behavior. The threat to businesses in the form of cyberattacks is only growing—especially as companies make the shift to embrace hybrid work.
But John Scimone, senior vice president and chief security officer at Dell Technologies, says “security is everyone’s job.” And building a culture that reflects that is a priority because cyber attacks are not going to decrease. He explains, “As we consider the vulnerability that industry and organizations face, technology and data is exploding rapidly, and growing in volume, variety, and velocity.” The increase in attacks means an increase in damage for businesses, he continues: “I would have to say that ransomware is probably the greatest risk facing most organizations today.”
And while ransomware isn’t a new challenge, it is compounded with the shift to hybrid work and the talent shortage experts have warned about for years. Scimone explains, “One of the key challenges we’ve seen in the IT space, and particularly in the security space, is a challenge around labor shortages.” He continues, “On the security side, we view the lack of cybersecurity professionals as one of the core vulnerabilities within the sector. It’s truly a crisis that both the public and private sectors have been warning about for years.”
However, investing in employees and building a strong culture can reap benefits for cybersecurity efforts. Scimone details the success Dell has seen, “Over the last year, we’ve seen thousands of real phishing attacks that were spotted and stopped as a result of our employees seeing them first and reporting them to us.”
And as much as organizations try to approach cybersecurity from a systemic and technical perspective, Scimone advises focusing on the employee, too: “So, training is essential, but again, it’s against the backdrop of a culture organizationally, where every team member knows they have a role to play.”
Laurel Ruma: From MIT Technology Review, I’m Laurel Ruma, and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace.
Our topic today is cybersecurity and the strain of the work-from-anywhere trend on enterprises. With an increase in cybersecurity attacks, the imperative to secure a wider network of employees and devices is urgent. However, keeping security top of mind for employees requires investment in culture as well. Two words for you. Secured workforce.
My guest is John Scimone, senior vice president and chief security officer at Dell Technologies. Prior to Dell, he served as the global chief information security officer for Sony Group.
This episode of Business Lab is produced in association with Dell Technologies.
John Scimone: Thanks for having me, Laurel. Good to be here.
Laurel: To start, how would you describe the current data security landscape, and what do you see as the most significant data security threat?
John: For anybody who can tune into a news outlet today, we see that these attacks are hitting closer to home, affecting public events this year, threatening to disrupt our food supply chain and utilities, and we see cyberattacks hitting organizations of all sizes and across all industries. When I think about the landscape of cyber risk, I decompose it into three areas. First, how vulnerable am I? Next, how likely am I to be hit by one of these attacks? And finally, so what if I do? What are the consequences?
As we consider the vulnerability that industry and organizations face, technology and data is exploding rapidly, and growing in volume, variety, and velocity. There’s really no sign of it stopping, and in today’s on-demand economy, nothing happens without data. Our recent Data Paradox study (that we did with Forrester) confirmed that businesses are overwhelmed by data. And that the pandemic has put additional strains on teams and resources—not just in the data they’re generating, where 44% of respondents said that the pandemic had significantly increased the amount of data they need to collect, store, and analyze—but also in the security implications of having more people working from home. More than half of the respondents have had to put emergency steps in place to keep data safe outside of the company network while people worked remotely.
We followed up with another study specifically on data protection against those backdrops. In this year’s global data protection index, we found that organizations are managing more than 10 times the amount of data that they did five years ago. Alarmingly, 82% of respondents are concerned that their organization’s existing data protection solutions won’t be able to meet all their future business challenges. And 74% believe that their organization has increased exposure to data loss from cyber threats, with the increase in the number of employees working from home.
Overall, we see that vulnerability is growing significantly. But what about likelihood? How likely are we to be hit by these things? As we think about likelihood, it’s really a question of how motivated and how capable the threats out there are. And from a motivation perspective, the risk to these criminals is low and the reward remains extremely high. Cyberattacks are estimated to cost the world trillions of dollars this year, and the reality is that very few criminals will face arrest or repercussions for it. And they’re becoming increasingly capable, and the tools and know-how to perpetrate these attacks are becoming more commoditized and widely available. The threats are growing in sophistication and prevalence.
Finally, from a consequences perspective, costs are continuing to rise when organizations are hit, whether the cost be brand reputational impact, operational outages, or impacts from litigation costs and fines. Our recent global data protection index shows that a million dollars was the average cost of data loss in the last 12 months. And a little over half a million dollars was the average cost to unplanned systems downtime over the last year. And there were numerous cases this year that were publicly reported where companies were facing ransom demands in excess of $50 million.
I worry that these consequences will only continue to grow. In light of this, I would have to say that ransomware is probably the greatest risk facing most organizations today. In reality, most companies remain vulnerable to it. It’s happening with increasing prevalence—some studies show as frequently as every 11 seconds a ransomware attack is happening—and consequences are rising, hitting some organizations to the tune of tens of millions of dollars of ransom demands.
Laurel: With the global shift to working anywhere and the increase of cybersecurity attacks in mind, what kinds of security risks do companies need to think about? And how are the attacks different or unusual from two or three years ago?
John: As we saw a mass mobility movement with many companies, employees shifting to remote work, we saw an increase in the amount of risk as organizations had employees using their corporate laptops and corporate systems outside of their traditional security boundaries. It’s unfortunately the case that we would see employees using their personal system for work purposes, and their work system for personal purposes. In reality, many organizations never designed from the get-go thinking about a mass mobility remote workforce. As a result, the vulnerability of these environments has increased significantly.
Additionally, as we think about how criminals operate, criminals feed on uncertainty and fear, regardless of whether it’s cybercrime or physical world crime, uncertainty and fear creates a ripe environment crime of all sorts. Unfortunately, both uncertainty and fear have been plentiful over the last 18 months. And we’ve seen that cyber criminals have capitalized on it, taking advantage of companies’ lack of preparedness, considering the speed of disruption and the proliferation of data that was taking place. It was an opportune environment for cybercrime to run rampant. In our own research, we saw that 44% of businesses surveyed have experienced more cyberattacks and data loss during this past year or so.
Laurel: Well, that’s certainly significant. So, what is it like now internally from an IT supports perspective—they have to support all of these additional nodes from people working remotely while also addressing the additional risks of social engineering and ransomware. How has that combination increased data security threats?
John: One interesting byproduct of the pandemic and of this massive shift to remote work is that it served as a significant accelerator for traditional IT initiatives. We saw an acceleration of digital transformation in IT initiatives that may previously have been planned or in-progress. But as you mentioned, resources are stretched. One of the key challenges we’ve seen in the IT space and particularly in the security space is a challenge around labor shortages. On the security side, we view the lack of cybersecurity professionals as one of the core vulnerabilities within the sector. It’s truly a crisis that both the public and private sectors have been warning about for years. In fact, there was a cybersecurity workforce study done last year by ISC2 that estimates we are 3.1 million trained cybersecurity professionals short of what industry actually needs to protect against cybercrime.
As we look forward, we estimate we’ll need to increase talent by about 41% in the US and 89% worldwide just to meet the needs of the digitally transforming society as these demands are rising. Labor is certainly a key piece of the equation and a concern from a vulnerability perspective. We look to start organizations off in a better position in this regard. We believe that building security, privacy, and resiliency into the offering should be central, starting from the design to manufacturing, all the way through a secure development process through supply chain, and following the data and applications everywhere they go. We call this strategy “intrinsic security,” and at its essence, it’s building security into the infrastructure and platforms that customers will use, therefore requiring less expertise to get security right.
As you point out, the attacks are not slowing down. Social engineering, in particular, continues to be a top concern. For those unfamiliar with social engineering, it’s essentially when criminals try to trick employees into handing over information or opening up the door to let criminals into their system, such as through phishing emails, which we continue to see as one of the most popular methods used by hackers to get their first foot in the door into corporate networks.
Laurel: Is intrinsic security a lot like security by design, where products are intentionally built with a focus on security first, not security last?
John: That’s right. Security by design, privacy by design—and not just by design, but by default, getting it right, making it easy to do the right thing from a security perspective when considering using these technologies. It means an increase, of course, in security professionals across the company, but also ensuring security professionals are touching all of the offerings at every stage of the design and making sure that best practices are being instituted from the design, development, and manufacturing stages all the way through, even after they’re sold the services and support that follow them. We view this as a winning strategy in light of the challenges we see at scale, the challenges our customers are facing in finding the right cybersecurity talent to help them protect their organizations.
Laurel: I’m assuming Dell started thinking about this quite a while ago because the security hiring and rescaling challenges have been around for a while. And, as obviously the bad actors have become more proficient, it takes more and more good people to stop them. With that in mind, how do you feel the pandemic sped up that focus? Or is this something Dell saw coming?
John: At Dell, we’ve been investing in this area for a number of years. It’s clearly been a challenge, but as we’ve seen, it’s certainly accelerated and amplified the challenge and the impacts that our customers face. Therefore, it’s only more important. We’ve increased our investment in both security talent engineering and acumen over a number of years. And we’ll continue to invest, recognizing that, as it’s a priority for our customers, it’s a priority for us.
Laurel: That does make sense. On the other side of the coin, how is Dell ensuring employees
themselves take data protection seriously, and not fall for phishing attempts, for example? What kind of culture and mindset needs to be deployed to make security a company-wide priority?
John: It really is a culture at Dell, where security is everyone’s job. It’s not just my own corporate security team or the security teams within our product and offering groups. It touches every employee and every employee fulfilling their responsibility to help protect our company and protect our customers. We’ve been building over many years a culture of security where we arm our employees with the right knowledge and training so that they can make the right decisions, helping us thwart some of these criminal activities that we see, like all companies. One particular training program that’s been very successful has been our phishing training program. In this, we are continuously testing and training our employees by sending them simulated phishing emails, getting them more familiar with what to look for and how to spot phishing emails. Even just in this last quarter, we saw more employees spot and report the phishing simulation test than ever before.
These training activities are working, and they’re making a difference. Over the last year, we’ve seen thousands of real phishing attacks that were spotted and stopped as a result of our employees seeing them first and reporting them to us. So, training is essential, but again, it’s against the backdrop of a culture organizationally, where every team member knows they have a role to play. Even this month, as we look at October Cybersecurity Awareness Month, we’re amplifying our efforts and promoting security awareness and the responsibilities that team members have, whether it be how to securely use the VPN, securing their home network, or even how to travel securely. All of this is important, but it starts with employees knowing what to do, and then understanding it’s their responsibility to do so.
Laurel: And that shouldn’t be too surprising. Obviously, Dell is a large global company, but at the same time, is this an initiative that employees are starting to take a bit of pride in? Is there, perhaps, less complaining about, “Oh, I have to change my password yet again,” or, “Oh, now I have to sign into the VPN.”
John: One of the interesting byproducts of the increased attacks seen on the news every day is that they commonly now impact the everyday person at home. It’s affecting whether people can put food on the table and what type of food they can order and what’s available. Awareness has increased an incredible amount over the last couple of years. With that understanding of why this is important, we’ve seen a rise both in the attention and the pride by which the employees take this responsibility very seriously. We even have internal scoreboards. We make it a friendly competition where, organizationally, each team can see who’s finding the most security phishing tests. They love being able to help the company, and more importantly, help our customers in an additional way that goes beyond the important work they’re doing day to day in their primary role.
Laurel: That’s great. So, this is the question I like to ask security experts because you see so much. What kind of security breaches are you hearing about from customers or businesses around the industry, and what surprised you about these particular firsthand experiences?
John: It’s an unfortunate reality that we get calls pretty much every day from our customers who are unfortunately facing some of the worst days in their corporate experience, whether they’re in the throes of being hit by ransomware, dealing with some other type of cyber intrusion, dealing with data theft, or digital extortion, and it’s quite horrible to see. As I talk to our customers and even colleagues across industry, one of the common messages that rings true through all of these engagements is how they wish they had prepared a bit more. They wish they had taken the time and had the foresight to have certain safeguards in place, whether it be cyber-threat monitoring and detection capabilities, or increasingly with ransomware, more focused on having the right storage and data backups and protection in place, both in their core on-premise environment, as well as in the cloud.
But it has been surprising to me how many organizations don’t have truly resilient data protection strategies, given how devastating ransomware is. Many still think of data backups in the era of tornadoes and floods, where if you’ve got your backup 300 miles away from where you’ve got your data stored, then you’re good, your backups are safe. But people aren’t thinking about backups today that are being targeted by humans who literally find your backups wherever they are, and they seek to destroy them in order to make their extortion schemes more impactful. So, thinking through modern data backups and cyber resiliency in light of ransomware, it’s surprising to me how few are educated in thinking through this.
But I will say that with increasing prevalence, we’re having these conversations with customers, and customers are making the investments more proactively before that day comes and putting themselves on better footing for when it does.
Laurel: Do you feel that companies are thinking about data protection strategies differently now with the cloud? And what kinds of cloud tools and strategies will help companies keep their data secure?
John: It’s interesting because there’s a general realization that customer workloads and data are everywhere, whether it’s on premises, at the edge, or in public clouds. We believe a multi-hybrid cloud approach that includes the data center is one that offers consistency across all of the different environments as a best practice and how you think about treating your data protection strategies. Increasingly we see people taking a multi-cloud approach because of the security benefits that come with it, but also cost benefits, performance, compliance, privacy, and so on. What’s interesting is when we looked at our global data protection index findings, we learned that applications are being updated and deployed across a large range of cloud environments, and yet confidence is often lacking when it comes to how well the data can be protected. So, many organizations leverage multi-cloud infrastructure, deploy application workloads, but only 36% actually stated that they were confident in their cloud data protection capabilities.
By contrast, one-fifth of respondents indicated that they had some doubt or were not very or at all confident in their ability to protect data in the public cloud. I find this quite alarming, particularly when many organizations are using the public cloud to back up their data as part of their disaster recovery plans. They’re essentially copying all of their business data to a computing environment in which they have low confidence in the security. Organizations need to ensure they’ve got solutions in place to protect data in the multi-cloud and across their virtual workloads. From our perspective, we’re focused on intrinsic security, building the security resiliency and privacy into the solutions before they’re handed to our customers. The less customers have to think about security and find ways to staff their own hard-to-hire security experts, the better.
A couple other strategies to consider are, first, selecting the right partner. On average, we found the cost of data loss in the last year is approaching four times higher for organizations that are using multiple protection vendors as compared to those who are using a single vendor approach. Finally, and most importantly, everybody needs a data vault. A data vault that’s isolated off the network, that’s built with ransomware in mind to contend with the threats that we’re seeing. This is where customers can put their most critical data and have the confidence that they’re going to be able to recover their known good data when that day comes where data is really the lifeline that’s going to keep their business running.
Laurel: Is the data vault a hardware solution, a cloud solution, or a little bit of both? Maybe it depends on your business.
John: There’s certainly a number of different ways to architect it. In general, there are three key considerations when building a cyber-resilient data vault. The first is it has to be isolated. Anything that’s on the network is potentially exposed to risks.
Second is that it has to be immutable, which essentially means that once you back up the data, that backup can never be changed. Once it’s written onto the disc, you can never change it again. And third, and finally, it has to be intelligent. These systems have to be designed to be as intelligent, if not more intelligent, than the threats that are going to be undoubtedly coming after them. Designing these data backup systems with the threat environment in mind by experts who deeply understand security, deeply understand ransomware, is essential.
Laurel: I see. That sounds like how some three-letter government agencies work, offline with little access.
John: Unfortunately, that’s what the world has come to. Again, there’s really no sign of this changing. If we look at the incentives that cyber criminals face, the rewards are incredible. The repercussions are low. It’s really the largest, most beneficial criminal enterprise in the history of humankind in terms of what they’re likely to get out of an attack versus the likelihood that they’re going to get caught and go to jail. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. As a result, businesses need to be prepared.
Laurel: It’s certainly true. We don’t hear about all the attacks either, but when we do, there is a reputation cost there as well. I’m thinking about the attack earlier in the year at the water treatment plant in Florida. Do you expect more focused attacks on infrastructure because it’s seen as a way easy way in?
John: Unfortunately, this is not the problem of only one industry. Regardless of the nature of the business you’re running and the industry you’re in, when you look at your organization through the lens of a criminal, there’s often something to be had, whether it’s geopolitical incentives, the monetization of criminal fraud, or whether it’s stealing the data that you hold and reselling it on the black market. There are very few companies that truly can look at themselves and say, “I don’t have something that a cybercriminal would want.” And that’s something that every organization of all size needs to contend with.
Laurel: Especially as companies incorporate machine learning, artificial intelligence, and like you mentioned earlier, edge and IoT devices—there is data everywhere. With that in mind, as well as the multiple touchpoints you’re trying to secure, including your work-from-anywhere workforce, how can companies best secure data?
John: It’s a double-edged sword. The digital transformation, that first of all, Dell has been able to be witness to firsthand, has been incredible. What we’ve seen in terms of improvements in quality of life and the way society is transforming through emerging technologies like AI and ML, and the explosion of devices at the edge and IoT, the digital transformation and the benefits are tremendous. At the same time, it all represents potentially new risk if it’s invested in and deployed in a way that isn’t secure and isn’t well prepared for. In fact, we found with our full data protection index that 63% believe that these technologies pose a risk to data protection, that these risks are likely contributing to fears that organizations aren’t future ready, and that they may be at the risk of disruption over the course of the next year.
The lack of data protection solutions for newer technologies was actually one of the top three data protection challenges we found organizations citing when surveyed. Investing in these emerging technologies is essential for digitally transforming organizations, and organizations that are not digitally transforming are not likely to survive well in the era we’re looking at competitively. But at the same time, it’s critical that organizations ensure their data protection infrastructure is able to keep pace with their broader digital transformation and investment in these newer technologies.
Laurel: When we think about all of this in aggregate, are there tips you have for companies to future proof their data strategy?
John: There are certainly a few things that come to mind. First, it’s important to be continuously reflecting on priorities from a risk perspective. The reality is we can’t secure everything perfectly, so prioritization is critical. You have to ensure that you’re protecting what matters the most to your business. Performing regular strategic risk assessments and having those inform the investments and the priorities that organizations are pursuing is an essential backdrop against which you actually launch some of these security initiatives and activities.
The second thing that comes to mind is that practice makes perfect. Exercise, exercise, exercise. Can you ask yourself, could you really recover if you were hit with ransomware? How sure are you of that answer? We find that organizations that take the time to practice, do internal exercises, do mock simulations, go through the process of asking yourself those questions, do I pay the ransom? Do I not? Can I restore my backups? How confident am I that I can? Those that practice are much more likely to perform well when the day actually comes where they’re hit by one of these devastating attacks. Unfortunately, it’s increasingly likely that most organizations will face that day.
Finally, it’s critical that security strategies are connected to business strategies. Most strategies today from a business perspective, of course, will fail if the data that they rely on is not trusted and available. But cyber-resiliency efforts and security efforts can’t be enacted on an island of their own. They must be informed by and supportive of business strategy and priorities. I haven’t met a customer yet whose business strategy remains viable if they’re hit by ransomware or some other strategic data protection threat, and they’re not able to quickly and confidently restore their data. A core question to ask yourself is, how confident are you in your preparedness today in light of everything that we’ve been talking through? And how are you evolving your cyber-resiliency strategy to better prepare?
Laurel: That certainly is a key takeaway, right? It’s not just a technical problem or a technology problem. It’s also a business problem. Everyone has to participate in thinking about this data strategy.
Laurel: Well, thank you very much, John. It’s been fantastic to have you today on the Business Lab.
John: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Laurel: That was John Scimone, the chief security officer at Dell Technologies, whom I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT and MIT Technology Review, overlooking the Charles River. That’s it for this episode of Business Lab. I’m your host, Laurel Ruma. I’m the Director of Insights, the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can find us in-print, on the web, and at events each year around the world. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at technologyreview.com.
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This podcast episode was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.
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