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Information asymmetry is the root cause of every breach. Your adversary knows something that you do not.

For instance, your adversary might discover:

  • A remote management system exposed to the Internet that you haven’t adequately protected
  • An account that uses weak, legacy authentication (e.g., an account lacking multi-factor authentication
  • A software vulnerability that you don’t know about, or know about but haven’t mitigated through patching or otherwise

Of course, this aspect of asymmetry doesn’t just apply to weaknesses on the target side. Your adversary likely has some level of specialization that works to their advantage, and that you can’t effectively predict. This might include deep understanding of:

  • One or more particular pieces of software
  • The inner workings of underlying compute and/or infrastructure platforms
  • The limitations of security controls or mitigations

Apex adversaries often have a deep bench, able to tap individuals or teams with specialization in myriad technical, operational, and other disciplines. You should assume that these adversaries either check every box on the lists above, or have the resources to do so.

Information asymmetry applies to intrusion operations, too.

Your adversary has the benefit of initiative. In addition to knowing technical, operational, and other aspects of intrusion operations, they are able to:

  • Plan and coordinate amongst themselves and their partners
  • Be as patient as needed
  • Balance things like the urgency of their operations against their risk tolerance (where risks are things like outright failure, attribution, and more)

So what’s the good news? If you can identify points of asymmetry, you can counter them.

We love to tell people to “think like an adversary”. Thinking like an adversary isn’t really a thing. It’s a few things, coupled with intent. But most of what adversaries are doing is looking for points of asymmetry and exploiting them.

Look at the lists above, and then consider how you might approach the same points of asymmetry, but to a different end. Selected examples:

  • Double down on understanding your attack surface, particular the subset that is most exposed
  • Provide strong identity protection, at virtually any acceptable cost
  • Patch your software, focusing first on vulnerabilities that have been actively exploited (don’t forget that your security controls are attack surface, too!)

Identify areas where asymmetry exists, and do a little work to try to learn the things that an adversary would seek to learn.

Get there first.