When Securing the Internet of Things: Collaborate or Die

Collaboration is key to solving large-scale security problems on the Internet of Things, says Cisco's Marc Blackmer.
Collaboration is key to solving large-scale security problems on the Internet of Things, says Cisco’s Marc Blackmer.

In-brief: Cisco’s Marc Blackmer argues that collaboration – not exceptionalism – must be the norm for defending the Internet of Things. 

We love stories about heroes: A general who wins an unwinnable war; a charismatic coach who leads an underdog team to victory; an entrepreneurial visionary who single-handedly disrupts the status quo. These stories can be romantic and inspiring. Heroes give kids positive role models, and societies the will to persevere through difficult times.

But these stories often miss a very important point: that these heroes have support. Generals need their officers to help develop strategies and analyze intelligence. Coaches rely on the expertise of their coaching staff to help create plays and work with the players. Entrepreneurs need their executive staff to lead the product, legal, sales, and other key teams. None of them would get anywhere without the teams needed to execute on their strategies and relay on-the-ground conditions back up the chain.

Marc Blackmer, Cisco Systems
Marc Blackmer is a Product Marketing Manager for Industry Solutions at Cisco Systems.


My intent is not to take away from the qualities of remarkable leaders, who are few and far between. Rather my intent is to say that a quality leader collaborates and encourages collaboration amongst the ranks. In Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators, Isaacson examines the course of computer innovation from Lady Ada Lovelace, often credited as the first computer programmer, through the present and with a look into the future. As both a history buff and a computer nerd, there was much about the book that I found fascinating. What resonated with me most, though, was the common thread of collaboration present in each success story. In other words, silos are a recipe for failure.

The Innovators contains multiple stories of inventions that were created independently and simultaneously. Each time only one of them would succeed while the other languished. Why? Typically, the lone inventor lacked an area of expertise in a given discipline to overcome a technical barrier, while a collaborative team consisting of different disciplines had the expertise to overcome the same barriers.

The benefit of collaboration among security practitioners isn’t any less than it is for entrepreneurs. We have a better chance of defending against the bad guys if we employ multiple perspectives than if we look at the problem from a single perspective. What I’m advocating for is classic defense-in-depth but with brains, not security boxes.

A great example of this type of collaboration is the convergence we are seeing between information technology (IT) teams and operations technology (OT) teams. Within the critical infrastructure sectors, there has been an historic division of labor between the corporate network (managed by IT) and the industrial control network (managed by OT). It can also be said that this division has been cultural as much as it’s been a division of labor. But forward-looking organizations have already realized that the only way to effectively defend themselves is to set aside cultural differences and cross-pollinate resources between IT and OT. By doing so, each functional team gains new skills and understandings, and the organization is better defended.

Collaboration must be the norm for defending the Internet of Things. Cisco estimates that there will be 50 billion (with a “b”) connected things by 2020, and that the IoT economy represents a market opportunity in the neighborhood of $19 trillion (with a “t”). That’s a pretty attractive target with an immense attack surface. Anyone who thinks we will be able to defend ourselves effectively in silos is grievously mistaken.

I do believe we can still have free, competitive markets, but it also in our collective best interest to realize that we are all in this together.

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