A drunk was leaning up against a lamppost on an urban street corner, doing his best to snap his fingers.
“Why are you snapping your fingers?” I asked him.
“To keep the tigers away,” he said.
“But we’re in the middle of the city!” I pointed out. “There are no tigers here!”
“See, it’s working!” He replied.
An old joke, to be sure – but one that teaches a serious lesson for today’s challenging cybersecurity marketplace. What do jokes about drunks and tigers have to do with cybersecurity? The source of the humor in the joke above derives from the difficulty inferring counterfactual causal relationships. And it’s just that type of causal relationship at the heart of the cybersecurity value proposition.
Marketing the Prevention Value Proposition
Any product that promises the prevention of adverse events suffers from the problem of counterfactuals. To see the problem, let’s define prevention, in the context of cybersecurity:
Product X prevents intrusions – If you use Product X, the chance of an intrusion is smaller than if you hadn’t used Product X.
Let’s say we’re discussing a fictional company, let’s call them Horizon. Horizon had a serious breach last month. But if they had bought our cybersecurity product, Product X, then they wouldn’t have had a breach.
This argument is fundamentally weak, for a few different reasons. First, it’s impossible to prove. Second, there’s no way to make the argument for Product X stronger than the corresponding argument for any competitor’s product.
And third, because no cybersecurity is 100% effective, we can’t say that Product X always prevents breaches. The most we can really say is that Horizon might not have had the breach, had they been using Product X – or more specifically, the chances that they would have had a breach would have been smaller, had they used Product X, as compared to not using it.
Adding such a probability factor strains the credulity of our marketing claim even further, because a skeptic cannot even come up with a counterexample. At least if we’re guaranteeing Product X will prevent a breach, then a single user of Product X who nevertheless experiences such a hack would prove us wrong – but not if all we’re saying is that Product X will reduce the chances of a breach.
We might as well just be snapping our fingers on a street corner.
Prevention vs. Deterrence
Fortunately, there’s more to cybersecurity than prevention. Let’s add deterrence to the mix:
Product X deters intrusions – If attackers believe you are using Product X, they are less likely to attack you than if they hadn’t believed you were using Product X.
The best thing about deterrence is that Product X doesn’t have to do anything real at all. Hackers simply have to believe it does. For example, you can put an alarm sign in your front yard, and as long as it causes burglars to believe you might have an alarm system, it will likely deter them from breaking into your house. As a result, they will head over to a house without such a sign.
In fact, if Product X successfully deters hackers, then it actually prevents attacks, as deterrence reduces the number of successful attacks, as compared to not using Product X – and that’s what we mean by prevention.
Of course, doing nothing but trying to bluff the hackers is not a cybersecurity strategy that any CISO should ever recommend. Nevertheless, deterrence is an important part of the value proposition of prevention – in spite of its counterfactual nature.
Fundamentally, if Horizon purchases Product X because it promises to prevent breaches, and in fact the number of breaches goes down, we really don’t care whether the reduction in breaches was because Product X was actually working, or because hackers poked around enough to see that Product X was there, and at that point simply chose to move on to easier targets.
On the one hand, this fact might make the security folks at Horizon breathe a bit easier with their choice of Product X, as it might deter hackers even if it’s not working properly, except for one problem: the deterrence value proposition diminishes as more companies use it.
After all, if everyone has an alarm sign in their yard, it won’t take long for burglars to realize that having a sign bears no relation to which houses actually have alarm systems, and at that point they’ll simply ignore all the signs. So, the more bogus signs there are in a neighborhood, the less of a deterrent the signs become.
As a result, if we use Product X and the number of breaches goes down, we actually do care whether that reduction is a result of Product X actually working, or simply the deterrence value of having it. Deterrence wears off over time without requiring the hackers to step up their game – so deterrence alone is a losing battle.
Prevention, Deterrence, and Mitigation, Oh My
Fortunately, prevention and deterrence are not the only cybersecurity value propositions. We must also add mitigation to the list. Here’s how we define mitigation:
Product X mitigates intrusions – If you use Product X, the damage intrusions cause will be less than if you hadn’t used Product X.
Mitigation still includes a counterfactual: with Product X, the damage of an intrusion is less than it would have been, had Horizon not been using the product.
To prove such a statement, we’d require the statistical analysis of the results of a controlled experiment: set up two identical scenarios, except that one has Product X and the other does not, allow statistically randomized attacks to occur, and compare the results.
In practice, however, this counterfactual is virtually impossible to prove, as real-world attacks are unlikely to bear much resemblance to statistically randomized ones, and setting up useful scenarios that are identical in all other aspects is also an unrealistic expectation.
The mitigation value proposition, therefore, has its weaknesses. However, in spite of these limitations, mitigation is the strongest value proposition of the three, because it also includes a factual element: Product X will limit the damage of an intrusion.
Generally speaking, we can prove that this statement is true by analyzing what Product X actually does in the case of an intrusion – just as we would prove the efficacy of any product in any other category. This provability is why factual claims are so much stronger than counterfactual ones.
Furthermore, mitigation can also serve as a deterrent, as effective mitigation reduces the value proposition for the hackers to mount their attack. If attacker believe that even if they are able to successfully breach a system, there won’t be much of value to steal, then they probably won’t bother.
The deterrence value of mitigation is why burglars rarely if ever break into the locked blood sample boxes you see outside doctors’ offices – the ones with signs that say “specimens only, no cash or drugs.”
The boxes are still locked – but the locks alone are ineffective prevention of a breach. Instead, it’s the mitigation value of not putting anything valuable in the boxes, combined with the deterrence value of the sign itself, that protect the specimens.
The Intellyx Take
If you’re a vendor of a cybersecurity product and you’re hammering out your value proposition, you might assume that prevention is a stronger value proposition than deterrence, and mitigation is the weakest of the three. After all, mitigation presumes a successful attack, right?
In reality, however, the reverse is true. Mitigation is actually the strongest of the three cybersecurity value propositions, because it is not wholly counterfactual, and furthermore leads to deterrence and thus prevention as well.
Deterrence is the next strongest, because it doesn’t rely upon working technology, and leads to prevention.
Surprisingly, however, the prevention value proposition is the weakest of the three – which explains why the tiger joke is funny, after all.
For enterprises in the market for cybersecurity products, furthermore, there is an important lesson here. Look carefully for the counterfactuals in the value propositions the vendors present in their marketing.
The weaker a product actually is, the more likely the marketer will espouse counterfactuals – because they’re impossible to prove. Don’t fall for vendors who say they’re keeping the tigers away.
Intellyx advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Ross Elliott.