The RMS Titanic and cybersecurity

Famous shipwreck holds many lessons for the cybersecurity community.


Little known fact: Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Bob Ballard’s discovery of the RMS Titanic, several hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland Canada. I’ve recently done some research into the ship, its builders, and its ultimate fate and believe that lessons learned from Titanic may be useful for the cybersecurity community at large. 

The Titanic tragedy teaches us of:

  1. The dangers of technology hubris. The Titanic was designed with the latest technology at the time to withstand severe storms in the north Atlantic. Because of this, the shipbuilders at Harland and Wolff decided to market the ship as “unsinkable.” Likewise, our industry has this absolute love affair with technology. I’m constantly briefed on the latest and greatest prevention or detection engine designed to withstand anything hackers can throw at it. Like the “unsinkable” Titanic, this is nothing but hot air. Bad guys will find ways around all of our defenses over time. Strong security demands people, process, and technology so the industry love affair with technology alone is counterproductive and leaves us susceptible to a sea of cybersecurity icebergs.
  2. The need for organizational coordination. There were two inquiries into the Titanic disaster, one in the U.S. and one in England. In both cases, investigators learned that the crew of the Titanic was inexperienced and various groups that made up the Titanic’s staff did not work well together. This lack of coordination could have contributed to the disaster. Similarly, strong cybersecurity depends on a collaborative effort between cybersecurity professionals, business management, and different IT groups (i.e. IT operations, DevOps, data center infrastructure, etc.). A lack of cooperation could also lead to disastrous results.
  3. Tradeoffs between business objectives versus risk management. A man named Thomas Andrews was tasked with the Titanic’s overall design and construction. Andrews wanted 64 life boats to guarantee space for all passengers, but the management of Harland and Wolff didn’t want to waste precious space on the promenade deck, so higher-ups decided to go with the legally acceptable minimum – 16 lifeboats (and 4 tenders). The rest, as they say, is history. Similarly, business managers often go full-speed ahead with business initiatives without considering cybersecurity risks. Alternatively, they minimize cybersecurity investment, eschewing good security for “good enough” security. The lesson here? Don’t make blind or best-case risk management assumptions or you could hit an iceberg that is much larger than you think.

There are plenty of other lessons I could come up with but I’m sure you get my point.  Organizations should approach cybersecurity with humility, reality, and a comprehensive team effort.  In lieu of this end-to-end approach, CEOs shouldn’t be surprised when their organizations suffer data breaches, their stock prices sink, and their careers end up in Davy Jones’ locker.  

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