Lessons from Electronic Infections

Jun 04, 2020

Author: Dr. Wendy Ng

My past career in biology, the journey and the subsequent transition to the electronic arena were shared in a previous blog. The fact my first chosen field in biology was multi-disciplinary, relied heavily on statistics and modelling techniques, drew me to cyber security. Another similarity between biological and electronic infections, is that both require and thrive on connectedness.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the 1918 flu and Covid-19 pandemics occurred at a time of increased connectedness. The flu pandemic occurred at a time of increased mobilisation in WW1. Whilst Covid-19 appears to have fanned out from a region which forms a global manufacturing and trading hub, as well as a highly mobile population, both ingress and egress. Similarly, for electronic infections, 20 years ago if an organisation had Internet connectivity, antivirus software and firewalls would have provided adequate security.

In today’s world with tens of billions of connected devices, a number which is growing exponentially, as are opportunities for infections and transmissions, you are very likely to require a plethora of modern analytics tools, including intrusion detection and prevention systems, web application firewalls, machine learning algorithms to detect unauthorised activities.

Modern networked systems require significant cyber security investment to protect assets, electronic healthcare, if you will, to protect them from infections and attacks. These will include thorough testing, monitoring and patching. Such measures are accepted overheads for a digitised world. The reasons that we are happy to pay this cost is because i) technological connectivity confers significant operational efficiencies; ii) the capability is expected by a generation that grew up with technology.

In addition to the greater monitoring, organisations have also ramped up their readiness for responses to cyber breaches and attacks. These will include operational resilience, use of backup facilities, as well as simulated cyber-attacks or data breaches, so that responses can be refined and choreographed through playbooks.

The predominant trend at the start of the 21st Century is that humans are aligned with electronic connectedness. We are highly mobile, even globally, on a scale that previous generations only dreamed of. There are also more of us, which means on average, we will coexist in higher densities, presenting the perfect conditions for infections. Whilst on the whole, improved hygiene, vaccines and therapeutics provided the much-needed protection, conditions will improve for epidemics or pandemics through existing or novel pathogens.

Analogous to investments into security to ensure electronic systems are safe and security, we will need similar actions for healthcare. Covid-19 demonstrated the damage that pandemics could do. Active monitoring will improve visibility to, and thus our responsiveness to healthcare threats and pathogens in the environment. Preparedness through defined responses, sustained capacity for the development of vaccines or therapeutics, as well as the ability to scale these globally, will help to mitigate the effects of future pandemics.

Response readiness to biological infections akin to those accepted in cyber security, through “germ games” as proposed by Bill Gates, is likely to be more common. As Louis Pasteur stated, “Fortune favours the prepared mind”. In a world of increasing density and connectivity, and to maintain a standard of living many of us come to expect, perhaps we should take a leaf out of the cyber security guidebook?

Dr. Wendy Ng is a DevSecOps Security Managing Advisor, who’s honed her technical consulting skills through a number of industries: aerospace, healthcare, fintech, telco, transport logistics, and critical national infrastructure. Wendy completed her doctoral studies at the University of Oxford and has contributed to the scientific community through peer-reviewed publications. She has been sharing her experience and expertise, addressing key challenges, in her blogs since 2016.