Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics that studies the behavior of dynamic systems that are highly sensitive to both initial conditions and the most minor changes to those conditions over time. This is also referred to as the butterfly effect. The analogy is that slight changes can lead to drastically different outcomes over time, like a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil causing a tornado in Texas. Through the lens of chaos theory, we can better understand how small changes can have large effects on the cybersecurity of a system or network. It can help us recognize the behavior of malicious actors and predict how they may try to exploit system vulnerabilities. Chaos theory can also be used by security teams to develop new strategies and techniques, like making a network more resilient to attacks by introducing ordinarily unexpected events, a form of controlled chaos, through efforts like penetration testing and red teaming.
Truth be told, security system complexity is a result of the number of variables in the environment. Increased variables create more chaos and aless controllable outcome. Hence the fabled quote by cybersecurity pioneer Bruce Schneier, “Complexity is the enemy of security.”
Let's break this down a bit more. In the context of cybersecurity, the butterfly effect perfectly describes how small misconfigurations or vulnerabilities can have significant consequences when exploited by attackers. Here are a few examples:
In each of these examples, a small initial event (e.g., a misconfigured firewall rule or one phishing email) can have significant consequences if not properly addressed. Chaos theory illuminates the importance of carefully configuring and maintaining systems and staying vigilant against known and potential threats to reduce cybersecurity risk.
While the negative impacts are clear, the butterfly effect can create positive outcomes as well. Applying the butterfly effect to your security strategy will help reduce the risk of successful cyberattacks and protect assets. It’s important to consider the potential cybersecurity implications of all business decisions and how they can improve an organization's cybersecurity posture. Consider introducing these foundational measures to jumpstart improvement:
1. Invest in a cybersecurity program that includes security awareness training, implementation of organization-wide security policies, and procurement of best-of-breed security software and hardware that will better anticipate potential changes in the security landscape.
2. Perform due diligence when choosing vendors, carefully evaluating potential vendors and their cybersecurity practices to ensure that you partner with companies that prioritize security and who are, themselves, on the lookout for unexpected events.
3. Choose software and services with strong security features to protect organizational assets and sensitive information regardless of external variations from expected behaviors.
4. Implement systems that enforce use of unique passwords and authentication tokens to prevent unauthorized access to systems and accounts to minimize the accidental exposure of information in unexpected circumstances.
5. Regularly update and patch software and systems to fix known vulnerabilities and prevent attackers from creating unexpected actions to exploit them.
In general, embrace chaos theory by creating and anticipating ripples daily, weekly, and monthly, and you’ll have eliminated much of the chaos caused by those prevent future vulnerabilities.
Justin (he/him) is the founder and CEO of NuHarbor Security, where he continues to advance modern integrated cybersecurity services. He has over 20 years of cybersecurity experience, much of it earned while leading security efforts for multinational corporations, most recently serving as global CISO at Keurig Green Mountain Coffee. Justin serves multiple local organizations in the public interest, including his board membership at Champlain College.