Tighten up your security

by Jay Abbott

20 Aug 2009

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Picture the scene. A UK-based engineering group finds that its markets in Asia have suddenly been flooded with counterfeit versions of its products. What’s worse, they’re very good counterfeits.

In fact, a little too good. When the company gets hold of these products and examines them, it can see that they are based on its own genuine designs. The truth dawns: organised criminals have penetrated its core corporate systems, and stolen the intellectual property that underpins its business.

A growing threat
This scenario is fictional, but the threat is anything but. Digital information such as business-critical IP and data on customers, employees and financial transactions plays an increasingly pivotal role in companies’ business models. Yet this asset is ever more vulnerable to espionage, cyber attacks and theft.

Recent statistics underline the problem. In July 2009, the Ponemon Institute’s annual survey of over 600 UK public and private sector organisations found that 70% had experienced a data breach in the past year, up from 60% the year before.

Yet, when PwC conducted research into information security with more than 7,000 senior IT executives from 119 countries, 35% did not even know how many security incidents their organisations had suffered.

This relatively weak grip on security is all the more worrying given the rising importance of data and IP in major industries. For example, the business model of pharmaceuticals companies is shifting towards a reliance not just on drug-related IP but on valuable research data, as they target, treat and monitor individual customers throughout their lives. Increasingly, businesses that fail to protect their systems effectively are putting their very existence at risk.

Where’s the talent?
However, this requirement raises many challenges. Clearly, having the right security technology is important for preventing, tracking and addressing breaches. But potentially more difficult is the task of finding and recruiting the talent needed to stress test corporate systems and identify and address vulnerabilities before the criminals do.

This growing need for ‘information guardians’ has opened up a gap in the recruitment arena, as highlighted by a recent PwC study (see box). The problem is that the people best-qualified to defend a business against cyber attacks are not traditional corporate recruits or technology geeks, but complex problem-solvers with naturally inquisitive minds who are also outstanding technologists.

The task of finding and recruiting such people is hampered by the fact that they often have few formal qualifications, are probably not on the jobs market and may even feel a cultural aversion to working for a ‘corporation’. For their part, senior management and boards have little understanding of the work these information guardians would do, and no experience of managing and incentivising them.

Learning lessons
As our information panel suggests, we believe the solution lies in finding a way to tap into ‘dark pools’ of talent that has previously been below the corporate radar.
Some areas of government, such as the security services, are familiar with recruiting and managing these people, but for most large companies this means moving well outside their comfort zone.

It also means using different recruitment approaches and criteria. Rather than looking at people already on the jobs market, companies might trawl the military, covert services and hacking groups. And rather than seeking formal skills and experience, recruiters need to test for the right character traits, such as a refusal to take answers at their face value and deep practical problem-solving abilities.

Hackers often have the ideal talents for the job, but they are notoriously difficult to find and recruit. They are usually male, start hacking at 13 or 14 years old and continue hacking away quietly though their school and university years. It is those who do it for the challenge rather than out of criminal intent that organisations should look to attract.

Hands-on experience
Building up our business testing of corporate security measures and advising on and implementing improvements has taught us a lot about finding, employing and managing ‘dark talent’.

In our experience, the optimal approach is to recruit and manage these people in a small, tight-knit team with a distinct culture from the rest of the business. They are motivated more by intellectual challenge and curiosity than by money, so should be provided with challenging research activities as well as regular security work. And they are more likely to join a business where like-minded people are already working.
Attracting and keeping this new type of talent will not be easy, but companies have no choice. They will either fish in dark pools or face an uncertain future.

Jay Abbott is a director in PwC’s threat and vulnerability practice.


Talent recruited from the non-traditional ‘dark pool’ raises particular people management challenges for companies accustomed to managing employees with more orthodox academic and professional qualifications. PwC has recently produced a report ‘Managing tomorrow’s people: how the downturn will change the future of work, which uses scenario planning to trace the corporate history of three companies, looking back from 2020.It includes the following account of events around 2009/10:

‘Data, intellectual property and intangible assets became an increasingly core part of many business models. Some companies relied heavily on banks of customer data to intelligently target bespoke products and services through the consumer’s life span… Performance management within organizations increasingly focused on capturing, monitoring and manipulating a vast range of employee metrics. Data and communications networks were increasingly vulnerable to e-espionage, cyber attacks and theft by organized criminals.

‘Companies needed to find a way of countering these threats. They started to fish in dark pools for the talent they needed to create a protective shield. This new wave of corporate employee included those previously involved in covert government operations, the military, technological innovators and ex-criminals.

A recruitment gap was identified: companies needed complex puzzle solvers who happened to use technology, not just technology experts.

‘The influx of dark pool talent provided people management challenges for managers and leadership who understood the need for, but not the nature of, the work these teams undertook. Some were unconventional and eccentric characters with values and life experiences very different from traditional candidates. Care was needed to manage and incentivise these people, especially during their exit, as many of them carried knowledge that could be used to compromise, even destroy, operations.’

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