The Cyber Expert Who Doesn't Think the Sky is Falling: Q&A with Kaspersky Lab's Adam Firestone


Kaspersky Lab's Adam Firestone wants you to handle the cyber landscape like you would handle navigating the ocean.

Correction: This story previously stated that Adam Firestone is the president of Kaspersky Lab. He's in fact the president of Kaspersky Government Security Solutions, Inc.

As the president of IT security vendor Kaspersky Government Security Solutions, Inc., Adam Firestone has advice for navigating the cyber landscape: Treat it like the ocean.

Human beings can travel safely through the ocean, despite its inherently hostile environment. We simply must take the appropriate precautions.

It’s no different in the cyber world, according to Firestone. Despite the sheer volume of cyber threats in today’s landscape, you can navigate it safely if you invest in the proper risk mitigation techniques.

Firestone has a wealth of experience in the arena. And amid the doom and gloom surrounding much of cyber discourse, he maintains a positive outlook, perhaps thanks to his years as an engineer. “There is no problem that we can't think our way out of,” he said. 

Nextgov spoke with Firestone recently to get his take on the current cyber threatscape.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NG: How well do you think the federal government is doing right now in terms of battling cyber threats?

AF: The president has made it a big priority. Congress is talking about how we have to do something. We have to do many things; we have to attack the problem. And that’s really important.

The fact that there’s attention being paid to it at those levels is really, really important. And we sometimes lose track of how important that is because of the volume of attacks that we've seen recently.

If I had to give them a grade, I would say they get a passing grade, but it's still a work in progress. And that’s not just government. Cyber, because of the ubiquity of technology, is a partnership. It's a public-private interplay. And there are tensions between the two because they come from different perspectives. But I think they're meeting in the middle a lot, and that’s also a very important fact.

NG: We know that there is no one single solution for stopping cyber threats. So what do you think is the No. 1 mistake agencies are making when they attempt to really bolster their cybersecurity?

AF: What we have here is a need to frame the problem. And I think the framework that is most useful is looking at cyber not as cyber, but just as another operational risk.

If we think about cyber as a binary -- we're either vulnerable or not vulnerable -- I don't know that we'd get anywhere. If we think about cyber in terms of: There are many bad things that could happen to us. This is one of them. What are we protecting? What’s the value of what we're protecting? What’s the level of risk that we face? How much do we invest in mitigating that risk? And what are the methods and mechanisms we use to mitigate that risk? And we do it as a standard risk analysis for everything we do, just like everything else, then we begin to move places.

NG: Let’s look at the more sexy side of cyber. What are the more external threats? Where do the most sophisticated threats come from, and what do they attempt to do?

AF: I think that’s part of our problem in that we all want to be James Bond. We all want to look at the super sexy threat that’s coming at us. And the reality is, if you're driving down the street and a Ferrari hits you, or a Camry hits you, it doesn't matter.

What are the threats? Where are they coming from? They're global.

I feel on a visceral level why you don't do attribution is [because] doing attribution draws us into this combative mindset of somehow we're going to fight back. And it doesn't work that way. . . The idea that we are worried more about what is coming at us, than what it can do to us and how we can respond prior to that impact is somewhat specious.

When I look at things like [the Sony hack], I guess I'm less concerned with who may or may not have pushed the ultimate button than I am with how did you build that in the first place? How did you protect your data? Which systems did you have in place to do that?

Often when we think of security, we think about really sexy things that we put in our networks to sniff things. Don't get me wrong, CloudShield, for example, is doing God's work. CloudShield does phenomenal work and makes a great product. But before we get to the point of inserting something into an already-built environment, we should think about what that environment should be built to be.

NG: Give us an idea of what the threat landscape looks like in 2015. What’s different this year from previous years?

AF: More power -- more, more, more. It's all that volume. People get smarter and things get more sophisticated. People owned Hondas 10 years ago and it's nothing like the Hondas today. And that's just a normal occurrence. We can expect technological sophistication to increase.

What’s fascinating about the threatscape is the sheer volume. The magnification volume. It's not geometric in progressions. It's almost exponential in progression. And what that should tell us is not that it's more dangerous -- I mean, I guess it is. What that should tell us is that it's an inherently hostile environment . . . You can navigate an inherently hostile environment with perfect safety all the time, but you have to invest in the proper risk mitigation techniques.

As the volume of threats multiply, the likelihood that you will be confronted with a threat multiples. And what that should do is not terrify anyone. What that should do is say to us, "Hey, we really need to understand how this can affect us and what we can do to ensure continuity of operations despite what may happen."

NG: I don't know how many times I've heard the phrase "cyber Pearl Harbor," the doomsday predictions. It's a lot of scaremongering.

AF: Bad things can happen, right? However, worse things happen when you fail to understand your environment.

People get cuts in the 17th century and they think nothing of it. They get infected and bad things happen because there's no concept that, "I need to wash that out and put a disinfectant on it." Today, you get a paper cut, you put down the paper you're working on, mutter a bad word, wander over to the sink, wash your hands thoroughly, and maybe put some peroxide and a Band-Aid on it. Because those germs aren't less deadly . . . Our understanding of that environment and how to mitigate that danger has improved.

Until we start really making people aware and educating at the earliest levels, we do ourselves a disservice. We put ourselves at the mercy of the hostile environment. And any environment is either a threat or an opportunity. And opportunities have risks, but they're still opportunities. So we improve our knowledge. We improve our ability to manage the environment and more opportunities arise.

I know it's kind of weird to be a security guy and have a really positive outlook, but I'm an engineer and I believe there is no problem that we can't think our way out of.

NG: What is the state of the turf war between the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security over who gets to safeguard U.S. private networks from foreign cyber strikes? Have tensions eased or intensified?

AF: I don't think there’s a turf war really going on between DHS and DOD. I think there's a recognition that everyone’s got an interest in solving the problem and that there’s a willingness to hand off responsibility to either [those who] are closer to the problem or [those who are] better equipped and better able to manage the problem.

NG: Is there anything else you would like to highlight?

AF: If I had to educate people of one thing, [from] elementary school all the way [to the] workforce, [it would that] cyber is about risk management. Understand that just because the environment is neutral or hostile -- like space or the ocean -- doesn't mean you can't navigate it successfully. It means you have to understand the risks that it poses and you have to take steps to mitigate that risk based on what you're protecting.

The more educated we are, the better able we are to mitigate our security risks. Does that mean you don't need specialized tools like endpoint protection? No, it doesn't mean that. It means you have to know when to use them and you have to understand what using them means.

NG: You mentioned that you spent some time on the Hill. What are lawmakers’ biggest confusion when it comes to cyber?

AF: That’s a better question for the lawmaker than me. My role on the Hill is I'm a nonpartisan information resource. I am happy to talk to people on both sides of the aisle. I will tell you that my sense is that the appreciation for the issues and exigencies of cyber is bipartisan. They may yell about a lot of things at each other, but this is not one of them . . . I'd prefer to look at it from the fact that I see resources being allocated, I see tremendous amounts of basic research and science being allocated.

In the acquisitions world, there's this imaginary clock. At 12 o'clock, some terrible threat’s there. By 3 o'clock, we've realized the threat and we allocate resources toward it. By 6 o'clock, we have achieved a tremendous capability toward mitigating that threat. And by 9 o'clock, we've implemented it. And I think we are somewhere between 3 and 6.

(Image via voyager624/