Complexity Science in Cyber Security

Computers and the Internet have become indispensable for homes and organisations alike. The dependence on them increases by the day, be it for household users, in mission critical space control, power grid management, medical applications or for corporate finance systems. But also in parallel are the challenges related to the continued and reliable delivery of service which is becoming a bigger concern for organisations. Cyber security is at the forefront of all threats that the organizations face, with a majority rating it higher than the threat of terrorism or a natural disaster.

In spite of all the focus Cyber security has had, it has been a challenging journey so far. The global spend on IT Security is expected to hit $120 Billion by 2017 [4], and that is one area where the IT budget for most companies either stayed flat or slightly increased even in the recent financial crises [5]. But that has not substantially reduced the number of vulnerabilities in software or attacks by criminal groups.

The US Government has been preparing for a “Cyber Pearl Harbour” [18] style all-out attack that might paralyze essential services, and even cause physical destruction of property and lives. It is expected to be orchestrated from the criminal underbelly of countries like China, Russia or North Korea.

The economic impact of Cyber crime is $100B annual in the United states alone [4].

There is a need to fundamentally rethink our approach to securing our IT systems. Our approach to security is siloed and focuses on point solutions so far for specific threats like anti viruses, spam filters, intrusion detections and firewalls [6]. But we are at a stage where Cyber systems are much more than just tin-and-wire and software. They involve systemic issues with a social, economic and political component. The interconnectedness of systems, intertwined with a people element makes IT systems un-isolable from the human element. Complex Cyber systems today almost have a life of their own; Cyber systems are complex adaptive systems that we have tried to understand and tackle using more traditional theories.

2. Complex Systems – an Introduction

Before getting into the motivations of treating a Cyber system as a Complex system, here is a brief of what a Complex system is. Note that the term “system” could be any combination of people, process or technology that fulfils a certain purpose. The wrist watch you are wearing, the sub-oceanic reefs, or the economy of a country – are all examples of a “system”.

In very simple terms, a Complex system is any system in which the parts of the system and their interactions together represent a specific behaviour, such that an analysis of all its constituent parts cannot explain the behaviour. In such systems the cause and effect can not necessarily be related and the relationships are non-linear – a small change could have a disproportionate impact. In other words, as Aristotle said “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. One of the most popular examples used in this context is of an urban traffic system and emergence of traffic jams; analysis of individual cars and car drivers cannot help explain the patterns and emergence of traffic jams.

While a Complex Adaptive system (CAS) also has characteristics of self-learning, emergence and evolution among the participants of the complex system. The participants or agents in a CAS show heterogeneous behaviour. Their behaviour and interactions with other agents continuously evolving. The key characteristics for a system to be characterised as Complex Adaptive are:

The behaviour or output cannot be predicted simply by analysing the parts and inputs of the system
The behaviour of the system is emergent and changes with time. The same input and environmental conditions do not always guarantee the same output.
The participants or agents of a system (human agents in this case) are self-learning and change their behaviour based on the outcome of the previous experience
Complex processes are often confused with “complicated” processes. A complex process is something that has an unpredictable output, however simple the steps might seem. A complicated process is something with lots of intricate steps and difficult to achieve pre-conditions but with a predictable outcome. An often used example is: making tea is Complex (at least for me… I can never get a cup that tastes the same as the previous one), building a car is Complicated. David Snowden’s Cynefin framework gives a more formal description of the terms [7].

Complexity as a field of study isn’t new, its roots could be traced back to the work on Metaphysics by Aristotle [8]. Complexity theory is largely inspired by biological systems and has been used in social science, epidemiology and natural science study for some time now. It has been used in the study of economic systems and free markets alike and gaining acceptance for financial risk analysis as well (Refer my paper on Complexity in Financial risk analysis here [19]). It is not something that has been very popular in the Cyber security so far, but there is growing acceptance of complexity thinking in applied sciences and computing.

3. Motivation for using Complexity in Cyber Security

IT systems today are all designed and built by us (as in the human community of IT workers in an organisation plus suppliers) and we collectively have all the knowledge there is to have regarding these systems. Why then do we see new attacks on IT systems every day that we had never expected, attacking vulnerabilities that we never knew existed? One of the reasons is the fact that any IT system is designed by thousands of individuals across the whole technology stack from the business application down to the underlying network components and hardware it sits on. That introduces a strong human element in the design of Cyber systems and opportunities become ubiquitous for the introduction of flaws that could become vulnerabilities [9].

Most organisations have multiple layers of defence for their critical systems (layers of firewalls, IDS, hardened O/S, strong authentication etc), but attacks still happen. More often than not, computer break-ins are a collision of circumstances rather than a standalone vulnerability being exploited for a cyber-attack to succeed. In other words, it’s the “whole” of the circum

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