What Kind of Entrepreneurs Can Prevent the Next Colonial Hack

By Reed Simmons, MBA associate at First In, and Renny McPherson, managing partner of First In


Two weeks ago, at  gas stations along the US east coast, the tangible effects of cyber attacks came into sharp relief. Over the last year, there have been three major public cyber attacks against the United States and its interests — the massive Solarwinds software supply chain intrusion, the broad compromise of Microsoft Exchange servers, and most recently the attack on Colonial Pipeline, enabled and managed by the criminal group DarkSide. The attacks highlight two key developments in the cybersecurity ecosystem: the expanding attack surface and the democratization of advanced threats. While the first two are attributed to nation states, the Colonial Pipeline attack was orchestrated by a criminal group. We believe these trends will continue to accelerate, placing a premium on cybersecurity companies and professionals with first-hand experience in all elements of cyber security. Military and intelligence community veterans have such experience, and they are uniquely positioned to build the cybersecurity solutions of the future.

As an organization’s software ecosystem grows in complexity, the number of potential cyber vulnerabilities and attack vectors—the totality of which is called the attack surface—expands exponentially. The cyberattacks of the last year exposed these growing vulnerabilities through complex methods of compromise. Hackers exploited previously unknown “zero-day” vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange servers to gain access to thousands of organizations’ networks. The SolarWinds supply chain compromise utilized a different intrusion set, exploiting a trusted third party software vendor to breach networks via push updates. As we write, DarkSide’s attack vector into Colonial Pipeline remains unknown, but the takeaway is clear: threat actors are aware of the growing attack surface and exploit the many vectors with growing sophistication. Moreover, anyone is a potential victim as China’s indiscriminate deployment of “web shell” backdoors to tens of thousands of servers demonstrates.

In the military and intelligence community, threat is defined as the product of capability and intent. We see a clear trend: as advanced cyber attack capabilities proliferate outward—spurred, in part, by open-source collaboration—barriers to entry for criminal and state actors are reduced. In turn, the cost-benefit analysis for more and more criminal groups and state and pseudo-state actors is clear. They can produce asymmetric returns on operational time invested. DarkSide’s attack is an example of the democratization of advanced threat: a group of non-state cybercriminals, half a world away, had the capability to shut down US critical infrastructure. While shutdown may not have been DarkSide’s ultimate purpose, that is no reason for comfort – there is hardly a dearth of malintent. We expect such attacks to multiply.

At First In, we believe military and intelligence community veterans’ experience at the leading edge of understanding attack vectors and devising cyber security solutions, imparts the perspective, technical skills, and community to uniquely understand and counteract state and criminal cyber actors. Cyber startup companies will need to counter advanced threats on behalf of the private sector, critical infrastructure, and the government.  Veteran entrepreneurs are well positioned to create some of the most promising cyber startups over the next several years. This is particularly true as the line separating attacks on public and private sectors has blurred significantly. Already the federal government is acting on a new model of cyber-resiliency, around Zero Trust, to modernize the nation’s cyber defenses in partnership with the private sector. As companies like Mandiant/FireEye and Tenable show, military veterans have a track record of success in the cybersecurity market. Yet as a demographic they remain broadly underserved from a capital perspective. More venture firms need to appreciate the diverse perspective that veterans can bring, and bridge this gap to unleash their potential.