For want of a cyber nail the kingdom fell

November 28, 2023  |  Chris Mark

An old proverb, dating to at least the 1360’s, states:

"For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,

for want of a shoe, the horse was lost,

for want of a horse, the rider was lost,

for want of a rider, the battle was lost,

for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,

and all for the want of a horseshoe nail,"

When published in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1768, it was preceded by the cautionary words:

“a little neglect may breed great mischief”.

This simple proverb and added comment serve as emblematic examples of how seemingly inconsequential missteps or neglect can lead to sweeping, irreversible, catastrophic losses. The cascade of events resonates strongly within the increasingly complex domain of cybersecurity, in which the omission of even the most elementary precaution can result in a spiraling series of calamities.

Indeed, the realm of cybersecurity is replete with elements that bear striking resemblance to the nail, shoe, horse, and rider in this proverb. Consider, for example, the ubiquitous and elementary software patch that may be considered the proverbial digital "nail." In isolation, this patch might seem trivial, but its role becomes crucial when viewed within the broader network of security measures. The 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack demonstrates the significance of such patches; an unpatched vulnerability in Microsoft Windows allowed the malware to infiltrate hundreds of thousands of computers across the globe. It wasn't just a single machine that was compromised due to this overlooked 'nail,' but entire networks, echoing how a lost shoe leads to a lost horse in the proverb.

This analogy further extends to the human elements of cybersecurity. Personnel tasked with maintaining an organization's cyber hygiene play the role of the "rider" in our metaphorical tale. However, the rider is only as effective as the horse they ride; likewise, even the most skilled IT professional cannot secure a network if the basic building blocks—the patches, firewalls, and antivirus software—resemble missing nails and shoes. Numerous reports and studies have indicated that human error constitutes one of the most common causes of data breaches, often acting as the 'rider' who loses the 'battle'.

Once the 'battle' of securing a particular network or system is lost, the ramifications can extend much further, jeopardizing the broader 'kingdom' of an entire organization or, in more extreme cases, critical national infrastructure. One glaring example that serves as a cautionary tale is the Equifax data breach of 2017, wherein a failure to address a known vulnerability resulted in the personal data of 147 million Americans being compromised. Much like how the absence of a single rider can tip the scales of an entire battle, this singular oversight led to repercussions that went far beyond just the digital boundaries of Equifax, affecting millions of individuals and shaking trust in the security of financial systems.

As with any kingdom, a community approach to defense is often the most effective strategy. This involves viewing cybersecurity not merely as a siloed department but as an organizational culture. Research by Singer and Friedman supports this view, emphasizing the importance of fostering a corporate environment where every employee is aware of and committed to best security practices. In the context of the proverb, it’s equivalent to ensuring not just that the rider is skilled but that everyone in the kingdom understands the stakes of the impending battle.

So, how does one protect the 'kingdom' in the context of cybersecurity? While the absence of a single 'nail' can set off a cascade of failures, the presence of a robust, multi-layered security posture can often prevent the loss of the 'kingdom.' This involves a holistic cybersecurity strategy, one that accounts for not only technological defenses but also educates the 'riders,' reinforcing that the 'battle' is a collective responsibility.

In summary, the proverb "For want of a nail the kingdom was lost" serves as a potent metaphor for the complex, interconnected landscape of cybersecurity. Just as a lost nail can culminate in the loss of a kingdom, so can a single overlooked detail in a cybersecurity framework result in catastrophic outcomes, whether it's a successful ransomware attack or a large-scale data breach. The wisdom encapsulated in this ancient adage is not merely a cautionary tale; it is a clarion call for vigilance in our increasingly interconnected digital world. A kingdom, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link—or, in this case, its least-attended 'nail.'

How can AT&T Help?  AT&T’s robust catalog of managed security solutions incorporating detection, prevention, and response capabilities coupled with industry-leading cyber consulting within numerous domains to include secure infrastructure, incidence response and risk management help ensure your kingdom continues to stand tall and does not want for a security nail.

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2023 AT&T Cybersecurity Insights Report: Edge Ecosystem



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