Should companies be responsible for cyberattacks? The U.S. government thinks so – and frankly, we agree.
Jen Easterly and Eric Goldstein of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security planted a flag in the sand:
“The incentives for developing and selling technology have eclipsed customer safety in importance. […] Americans…have unwittingly come to accept that it is normal for new software and devices to be indefensible by design. They accept products that are released to market with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of defects. They accept that the cybersecurity burden falls disproportionately on consumers and small organizations, which are often least aware of the threat and least capable of protecting themselves.”
We think they’re right. It’s time for companies to step up on their own and work with governments to help fix a flawed ecosystem. Just look at the growing threat of ransomware, where bad actors lock up organizations’ systems and demand payment or ransom to restore access. Ransomware affects every industry, in every corner of the globe – and it thrives on pre-existing vulnerabilities: insecure software, indefensible architectures, and inadequate security investment.
Remember that sophisticated ransomware operators have bosses and budgets too. They increase their return on investment by exploiting outdated and insecure technology systems that are too hard to defend. Alarmingly, the most significant source of compromise is through exploitation of known vulnerabilities, holes sometimes left unpatched for years. While law enforcement works to bring ransomware operators to justice, this merely treats the symptoms of the problem.
Treating the root causes will require addressing the underlying sources of digital vulnerabilities. As Easterly and Goldstein rightly point out, “secure by default” and “secure by design” should be table stakes.
The bottom line: People deserve products that are secure by default and systems that are built to withstand the growing onslaught from attackers. Safety should be fundamental: built-in, enabled out of the box, and not added on as an afterthought. In other words, we need secure products, not security products. That’s why Google has worked to build security in – often making it invisible – to our users. Many of our most significant security features, including innovations like SafeBrowsing, do their best work behind the scenes for our core consumer products.
There’s come to be an unfortunate belief that security features are cumbersome and hurt user experience. That can be true – but it doesn’t need to be. We can make the safe path the easiest, most helpful path for people using our products. Our approach to multi-factor authentication – one of the most important controls to defend against phishing attacks – provides a great example. Since 2021, we’ve turned on 2-Step Verification (2SV) by default for hundreds of millions of people to add an additional layer of security across their online accounts. If we had simply announced 2SV as an available option for people to enroll in, it would have failed like so many other security add-ons. Instead, we pioneered an approach using in-app notifications that was so seamless and integrated, many of the millions of people we auto-enrolled never noticed they adopted 2SV. We’ve taken this approach even further by building the “second factor” right into phones – giving people the strongest form of account security as soon as they have their device.
As for secure by design: We all have to shift our focus from reactive incident response to upstream software development. That will demand a completely new approach to how companies build products and services. We’ve learned a lot in the past decade about reengineering security architectures, and actively apply those learnings to keep people safe online every day. Ensuring technology is secure by design should be like balancing budgets — a part of business as usual. However, it isn’t easy to cut-and-paste solutions here: developers need to think deeply about the threats their products will face, and design them from the ground up to withstand those attacks. And the same principles are true for securing the development process as they are for users: the secure engineering choice must also be the easiest and most helpful one.
Building security into every stage of the software development process takes work, but recent innovations, like our SLSA framework for secure software supply chains, and new general purpose memory-safe languages, are making it easier. Perhaps most significantly, adopting modern cloud architectures makes it easier to define and enforce secure software development policies.
Persistent collaboration between private and public sector partners is essential. No company can solve the cybersecurity challenge on its own. It’s a collective action problem that demands a collective solution, including international coordination and collaboration. Many public and private initiatives — threat sharing, incident response, law enforcement cooperation — are valuable, but address only symptoms, not root causes. We can do better than just holding attackers to account after the fact.
As Easterly and Goldstein write, “Americans need a new model, one they can trust to ensure the safety and integrity of the technology that they use every hour of every day.” Again, we agree, but in this case we’d take it a step further. Building this model and ensuring it can scale calls for close cooperation between tech companies, standards bodies, and government agencies. But since technologies and companies cross borders, we also need to take a global view: Cybersecurity is a team sport, and international coordination is essential to avoid conflicting requirements that unintentionally make it harder to secure software. Broad regulatory cooperation on cybersecurity will promote secure-by-default principles for everyone. This approach holds enormous promise, and not just for technologically advanced nations. Raising the security benchmark for basic consumer and enterprise technologies that all nations rely on offers far more bang for the buck. A far wider range of countries and companies can take these simple steps than can employ advanced cyber initiatives like detailed threat sharing and close operational collaboration. Given the interdependent nature of the ecosystem, we are only as strong as our weakest link. That means raising cyber standards globally will improve American resilience as well.
Of course, raising the security baseline won’t stop all bad actors, and software will likely always have flaws – but we can start by covering the basics, fixing the most egregious security risks, and coming up with new approaches that eliminate entire classes of threats. Google has made investments in the past two decades, but contributing resources is just a piece of the puzzle. It's work for all of us, but it's the responsible thing to do: The safety and security of our increasingly digitized world depends on it.