In early 2021, IEEE Security and Privacy asked a number of board members for brief perspectives on the SolarWinds incident while it was still breaking news. This was my response.
The penetration of government and corporate networks worldwide is the result of inadequate cyberdefenses across the board. The lessons are many, but I want to focus on one important one we’ve learned: the software that’s managing our critical networks isn’t secure, and that’s because the market doesn’t reward that security.
SolarWinds is a perfect example. The company was the initial infection vector for much of the operation. Its trusted position inside so many critical networks made it a perfect target for a supply-chain attack, and its shoddy security practices made it an easy target.
Why did SolarWinds have such bad security? The answer is because it was more profitable. The company is owned by Thoma Bravo partners, a private-equity firm known for radical cost-cutting in the name of short-term profit. Under CEO Kevin Thompson, the company underspent on security even as it outsourced software development. The New York Times reports that the company’s cybersecurity advisor quit after his “basic recommendations were ignored.” In a very real sense, SolarWinds profited because it secretly shifted a whole bunch of risk to its customers: the US government, IT companies, and others.
This problem isn’t new, and, while it’s exacerbated by the private-equity funding model, it’s not unique to it. In general, the market doesn’t reward safety and security—especially when the effects of ignoring those things are long term and diffuse. The market rewards short-term profits at the expense of safety and security. (Watch and see whether SolarWinds suffers any long-term effects from this hack, or whether Thoma Bravo’s bet that it could profit by selling an insecure product was a good one.)
The solution here is twofold. The first is to improve government software procurement. Software is now critical to national security. Any system of procuring that software needs to evaluate the security of the software and the security practices of the company, in detail, to ensure that they are sufficient to meet the security needs of the network they’re being installed in. If these evaluations are made public, along with the list of companies that meet them, all network buyers can benefit from them. It’s a win for everybody.
But that isn’t enough; we need a second part. The only way to force companies to provide safety and security features for customers is through regulation. This is true whether we want seat belts in our cars, basic food safety at our restaurants, pajamas that don’t catch on fire, or home routers that aren’t vulnerable to cyberattack. The government needs to set minimum security standards for software that’s used in critical network applications, just as it sets software standards for avionics.
Without these two measures, it’s just too easy for companies to act like SolarWinds: save money by skimping on safety and security and hope for the best in the long term. That’s the rational thing for companies to do in an unregulated market, and the only way to change that is to change the economic incentives.
This essay originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of IEEE Security & Privacy.” I forgot to publish it here.