Treating Cybercrime as a Disease

Jun 23, 2017

One of the most remarkable facts about the human body—indeed, about the great mass of living things—is that nearly every cell carries the complete genetic blueprint for the entire organism. There are exceptions to the rule: Mature red blood cells, for example, which are devoid of a nucleus, have no DNA to speak of. And reproductive cells (sperm and egg) carry only half the complement of genetic material. But most every other cell carries with it the full set of how-tos for creating and maintaining every part of the whole.

Think of that for a moment: Each of the tens of trillions of cells in your body has, in effect, the complete set of keys to the kingdom.

Storing the same cache of knowledge in each cell, naturally, makes the human machine all the more efficient and adaptive. But there’s a dark side too: Each of those cells has the power to go awry—and take down the whole organism with it. The wrong set of changes to a single cell’s genetic code, combined with other system breakdowns, can lead to cancer.

That, in a sense, is the predicament that the global organism of business has found itself in. The interlocking networks that power every company these days have made them infinitely more efficient and adaptive, sure—but way more vulnerable too.

A virus or malware loaded from any “cell”—anywhere—can cripple a company or hundreds of them, and the costs of such sieges are becoming staggeringly, unthinkably large. Witness the WannaCry ransomware attack in May, which raged through 150 countries, causing as much as $4 billion in losses worldwide.

COV.W.07.01.17.layout.inddThe cover of the Jul. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune Eyeem/Getty Images 

Cybercrime cost the global economy more than $450 billion in 2016, report Adam Lashinsky and Jeff John Roberts in the opening story of our cover package. The number of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks—which are designed to paralyze a target network with a deluge of messages, often sent from a bevy of hijacked computers—leaped more than 170% last year, and Cisco projects it will jump again by a factor of two or more by 2021.

From phishing to secret-stealing to outright extortion, hackers have gotten more brazen than ever in their cyberassaults, and companies increasingly find themselves outgunned and outflanked. The rise of state-sponsored infiltrators, meanwhile, has upped the firepower even more. In a handful of years, in fact, these digital ambushes have morphed from a mere corporate annoyance to, in some cases, an existential threat.

That’s what makes Robert Hackett’s feature on Google’s Project Zero so compelling. Google (googl), the company arguably most associated with the Internet, has come to its defense—empowering an elite SWAT team of hackers to probe not only its own code for weakness but everybody else’s too. “There are no boundaries to their jurisdiction,” writes Hackett. “Anything that touches the Internet is fair game.”

In the three years since the project got its start, the squad—a rotating group of a dozen veteran hackers—“has gained a reputation for being among the most effective computer bug exterminators on the planet,” Hackett writes.

Of course, no one honestly thinks the team will end the cancer of cyber-terror. But at least they’re boosting the chances of survival. 

A version of this article appears in the Jul. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline "The Keys to the Kingdom."

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