Philip Cao

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More Cyber Security Lessons From “The Martian”

6 min read


Tim KeaniniIn last week’s post, I covered the methodologies Mark Watney used to stay alive on the surface of Mars and how those lessons can be adapted for better cyber security back on Earth. As usual, this post will contain spoilers for The Martian, so close it now if you haven’t yet read the book or seen the movie.

This week I’ll discuss the mentalities and interpersonal skills that allowed the Ares 3 crew to successfully rescue Watney after he was stranded for more than a year on a foreign planet. Whether it is the launch of a manned space probe or defending against advanced cyber threats, these lessons can be used to pull the best possible outcome out of impossible odds.

The Power of a Cross-functional Team
In space travel, every supply and gram of weight is invaluable, much like the limited resources available to most security teams. To help cope with these limitations, every member of the Ares 3 crew served multiple functions. Watney, for instance, was both a botanist and mechanical engineer. This knowledge allowed Watney to recognize that food would be his scarcest resource, find the chemical components necessary to create arable land inside his living quarters and modify the various life support systems to make the environment suitable to plant life.

When a cyber-attack hits, you may be the only one available to address it. To be able to adequately assess and respond to the event, you need to have a working knowledge of the various tools and processes at your disposal. In addition, understanding how different systems work and how different user roles interact with the network allows you to see the security weak points and understand how an attacker may operate in your environment.

Always remember to laugh
Tense situations can have a mental toll on responders, and it is important to keep a sound state of mind to make good decisions. Watney was a serial jokester, frequently laughing at the ridiculousness of his own situation and making wisecracks about what his fellow astronauts left behind on Mars. He particularly hated disco.

Though responders are in the middle of extreme circumstances, it is important not to take yourself too seriously. Laughter helps you keep a level head and can help relieve stress, both in you and your coworkers. Then you are in a better position to make sound decisions and not to give up.

Leadership is not an option, it is a necessity
Watney never faulted his fellow astronauts for leaving him on Mars. They thought he was dead, and leaving immediately was imperative to getting the others out alive. More importantly, Commander Lewis is regretful when she finds out Watney was left alive on Mars, but instead of getting too down to do anything, she focuses on what the next course of action is.

Tough situations need leaders who will make hard calls and live with it. CISOs and other security leaders are responsible for choosing which tools to implement and what practices to employ. When a cyber-attack occurs, they need to be ready to use those tools instead of wishing they had something else.

Communication makes your job easier
One of Watney’s largest challenges throughout The Martian is his inability to communicate with mission command or his own crew. Watney goes on a cross-country trip to find the Pathfinder probe just so he can use it to establish communication. It works but only until he accidentally fries the machinery a few pages later. Fortunately, we do not have this problem, but many cyber security professionals still fail to communicate effectively in the event of an attack.

It makes sense. After all, we are usually busy investigating the attack and trying to prevent data loss. But don’t forget that good communication in an attack helps prevent duplication of efforts and generally helps the entire security team respond effectively.

In a more general sense, the security team needs to be visible to the rest of the organization. Keeping all employees abreast of ongoing security issues reminds them to be vigilant against phishing and other forms of social engineering. Remember, they may know their area of the network better than you, and might be able to identify something abnormal there before you do. Of course, there are some exceptions to this mode of communication. For instance, if an insider threat is suspected, it is likely better to keep that information to a small number of individuals until actions are taken, but for the most part, regular communication with the larger organization is a good thing.

Roles are important
While versatility is a modern virtue, it is important to understand what your role is in a given scenario, even if it changes often. The crew members of Ares 3 had specializations that enabled them to perform specific duties, but they were also general enough that they could fulfill whatever role was needed in a time of emergency. While Watney was forced to rely on his own ingenuity to survive on Mars, his rescue was left almost entirely in the hands of his fellow crewmates. Each had to perform a duty in the rescue, and several had to suddenly change that role when the rescue attempt started to go south. The important thing is they were able to shift responsibilities quickly but with a clear understanding of who was best suited to perform each role, and it was all organized with a clear order of command.

In the world of cyber security, where organizations often deploy varied tools for detection, mitigation and policy enforcement, it is essential to utilize people to their greatest strengths. Investigators, operations and management all have a role to play, and while they should be flexible according to needs, they work best with what they know.

Personal connections matter
Massive amount of money, resources, time and energy went into rescuing Watney from Mars. His struggle became a weekly news segment on Earth and no expense was spared to retrieve him alive because people feared for him, hoped for him and wanted to keep him safe. Never forget that there are real victims to data breaches. Customers, clients and employees can be deeply hurt for the simple act of doing business with your organization, so keep that in mind when you are rushing through those last few reports on Friday afternoon.

The bonds between the Ares 3 crew were unshakable, as is expected when six people spend months together traveling across the solar system to a new planet. This type of relationship should be encouraged among security practitioners because it facilitates smoother operations in the event of an emergency and reduces blaming. When a team cares about each other and their mission, attacks can be stopped and catastrophes can be salvaged.

The Martian contains many lessons that can be adapted to cyber security, but in the end it is still a work of fiction. Reality is more complex and difficult to grapple with, but we need these basic driving forces to properly prepare for disaster and to operate well under pressure. Mark Watney may not be our CISO, but we can take what he learned on Mars and use it to beat an advantaged enemy and difficult odds.

 TK Keanini, Chief Technology Officer, Lancope
[Cloud Security Alliance Blog]

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