The Art of Cyber War: Sun Tzu and Cybersecurity

Weighing the lessons of Sun Tzu and how they apply to cybersecurity.

Sun Tzu sought to revolutionize the way war was fought. That’s saying quite a bit, since he was born in 544 BCE and lived during an era when most wars were little more than gruesome bludgeoning events between one or more groups armed with axes, clubs and sharp sticks.

While not much information about Sun Tzu’s life has survived, we know he was employed by the then-ruler of the Kingdom of Wei in what is now the northeastern heart of China. He was a Chinese general and philosopher who envisioned the psychological aspects of war, which was a completely original approach to armed conflict in ancient China.

Many historians believe Sun Tzu’s book was intended to help his colleagues engage in the many regional conflicts they faced. Today, Sun Tzu’s the Art of War is a bestseller that has transcended 2,000 years and hundreds of wars. The book has become a kind of Rosetta Stone of military theory, cited by theorists and translated well beyond the battlefield to gain prevalence in business schools worldwide and now cybersecurity.

The Art of Cyberwar: preparation.

Adapting Sun Tzu’s many well-known quotes to cybersecurity is pretty straightforward. We looked for three that could best describe important aspects of cybersecurity: preparation, planning and knowledge. For preparation, we settled on a re-quote of this well-known warning:

Cyber warfare is of vital importance to any company. It is a matter of life and death, a road to safety or ruin.

Despite his military background, Sun Tzu claimed that direct fighting was not the best way to win battles. But when fighting was necessary, it was wise to carefully prepare for every possibility. That’s the lesson commonly ignored by companies who, after a severe breach, found themselves fined, shamed and scorned because they neglected their network security and failed to protect themselves from attackers. To prepare, we not only need the most advanced technology possible, but we must also train the workforce and make cybersecurity everyone’s business.

The Art of Cyberwar: planning.

In the realm of planning, we considered how the “art” is also a source of wisdom for attackers:

Where we intend to fight must not be made known. Force the enemy to prepare against possible attacks from several different points and cause them to spread their defenses in many directions; the numbers we shall have to face at any given moment will be proportionately few.

This re-quote relates to other stratagems where Sun Tzu urges his generals to never underestimate their enemies and to plan for all possibilities. The same goes for cyber attackers. They will pick the easy battles to ensure they have the upper-hand. Therefore, as we engage our defense, it is wise to plan our defenses as though we are already targeted and have been breached.

The Art of Cyberwar: knowledge.

Sun Tzu guides us away from making rash emotional decisions by emphasizing the importance of knowledge. He suggested that leaders gain as much knowledge as possible when preparing for battle, but not to limit themselves to the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

This bit of advice is a direct quote and accurately describes how cybersecurity should operate. Businesses must maximize the power of threat intelligence by giving IT teams the means to analyze real-time analytics and transform every scrap of data into actionable insights. IT teams should also be empowered to consider everything that could happen and assess the best course of action before, during and after a breach.

Explore and learn about the Art of Cyber War.

War theorists have long-standing debates about categorizing military activity preparations and execution. General Carl von Clausewitz stands next to Sun Tzu as one of the best-known and most respected thinkers on the subject. Paraphrasing from Clausewitz’s book Von Kriege (On War) published in 1832), he observes that the preparation for war is scientific, but the conduct of battle is artistic. As a science, we study logistics, technology and other elements depending on need. As an art, we rely on individual talent and grit to exploit opportunities that increase the likelihood of victory. Clausewitz also believed that war belonged to the province of social life, as are all conflicts of great human interest.

Cyberwar also fits these definitions. For instance, consider business activity as a combination of science, art and social life. As businesses compete in the marketplace, they carefully analyze the competition, create ways to appeal to audiences and press for social engagement and interaction. Shouldn’t we apply the same level of attention and resources for our cybersecurity? We think Sun Tzu would rub his beard and nod profoundly.

Cyberattacks for this year already eclipse the full-year totals from 2017, 2018 and 2019, according to the mid-year update to the 2022 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report. And new attack vectors are coming online every day. Without adequate preparation, planning and knowledge, companies and their customers are at a high risk of falling victim to devastating cyberattacks.

Explore and learn about the art and understand the science. Book your seat for MINDHUNTER 11, “The Art of Cyber War,” and learn from experts on how you can keep your company safe in the coming cyberbattles.

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Ray Wyman Jr
Digital Content & SEO Manager
Ray Wyman Jr is the Digital Content & SEO Manager at SonicWall. He’s also an author and content creator specializing in tech and business management.
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