From denial of service attacks to server crashes to day-long disruptions of Google Drive, almost all organizations are familiar with threats to their information security. Given that digital information is more central than ever, it’s worrisome that the history of data security is littered with failure. Organizations seeking to be better prepared for and more resilient in response to information threats may want to draw on a far larger and older source of lessons on information security — the 3.5 billion year history of life. Tapping into biology’s security database — which was developed by millions of species in response to extremely complex natural security problems — gives us first a wakeup call, then some practical guidance on how to keep our information secure.

The wakeup call concerns our assumptions about the borders, barriers, and firewalls we construct in a valiant attempt to protect our data. In nature, barriers — between organic and inorganic chemicals, between land and sea, between species, between everything — have been built, tested, overcome, rebuilt, and overcome again with almost endless repetition. Barriers — be they cell walls, border walls, or firewalls — are at best a temporary imposition to an invader. In the same way that tightly controlled unicellular life eventually evolved into more open and distributed multicellular life, the rapid evolution of cyber threats has outpaced the evolution of defensive barriers.

The lesson is simply that modern organizations should work under the basic assumption that almost anything electronic is now open source. My colleagues in climate science learned this the hard way when politically motivated hackers stole and released thousands of emails sent among scientists. Not only did sensitive data and preliminary analyses methods leak out, but the petty interpersonal spats and behind-the-back sniping that probably appear in all email chains were revealed in all their unappealing light.

Read more at Harvard Business Review.

Published On: June 7, 2013

Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist at the Institute of the Environment at University of Arizona. Rafe’s research includes everything from the historical and current sizes of intertidal gastropods (snails) to developing better ideas for national security, based on natural security systems. He is particularly interested in the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California, its ecological history, and the fascinating people past and present who have lived, worked, researched and journeyed there.

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