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By Ayman AlFadhel, VP of Cybersecurity at Salam

In the highly dynamic, technology-driven landscape of Saudi Arabia, where every aspect of our lives is interconnected through digital pathways, the importance of a strong and comprehensive cyber defense strategy cannot be overstated. Between 2021 and 2026, overall ICT spending in KSA is projected to grow at a CAGR of 7.5%, and such growth also gives rise to a multitude of cyber threats. From ransomware attacks that hold critical systems hostage to data breaches that compromise personal information, the threat landscape is constantly evolving, demanding an adaptive and holistic approach to defense.

Being at the forefront of telecommunications, Salam acknowledges its imperative to not solely provide uninterrupted communication services but also to safeguard the security and confidentiality of our customers' sensitive data. This commitment extends to shielding a nation's critical infrastructure, encompassing its Information Technology (IT), Internet of Things (IoT) and Operations Technology (OT) systems.

Cyber-Defense Strategies

In the realm of essential service providers like Salam, adhering to security controls is of paramount importance. This entails complying with regulations set forth by local governing bodies such as the Space & Technology Commission (CST) and the National Cybersecurity Authority (NCA), while also embracing global best practices as defined by entities like the ITU and GSMA. This commitment is not only aimed at protecting the data of both employees and customers but also entails setting high-reaching benchmarks on availability and resilience for other businesses within the country.

The foundation of any resilient cyber defense strategy hinges on proactivity. This necessitates that cybersecurity teams emphasize the prevention of cyberattacks and incidents rather than merely reacting after they have happened. By building upon this core tenet, businesses in Saudi Arabia can harmonize their security governance principles, designs, implementations and operations with the all-encompassing guiding principles established within the National Cybersecurity Authority's Essential Cybersecurity Controls and the Space & Technology Commission's cybersecurity guidelines.

An excellent initial step involves conducting a thorough risk assessment. Grasping the organization's vulnerabilities, possible attack vectors and the significance of its digital assets establishes the basis for implementing impactful defense measures. Alongside this is cultivating a security culture that is rooted in the idea that every member of your organization is a potential target and, conversely, a line of defense. Fostering a security-conscious culture through ongoing training, education and awareness initiatives empowers employees to become active contributors to cyber defense. Well-crafted cybersecurity policies for incident response should be in place.

Furthermore, for a holistic protection against threats like phishing and DDoS attacks, organizations must adopt a comprehensive approach when designing their defense strategies. Relying on a singular defense mechanism is no longer adequate to counter sophisticated cyberattacks. Embracing a multi-layered defense strategy entails the integration of a blend of technologies, processes and best practices that collectively establish a robust security posture. This approach might encompass various aspects such as network security (including DDoS mitigation, firewall, IDS/IPS, WAF, etc.), endpoint security (antivirus, malware protection, EDR) and solutions for data security and encryption. Also, it is the responsibility of any organization that gathers, utilizes, transfers and/or retains personal data to ensure the security of that data and protect the privacy rights of the individuals involved. This obligation goes well beyond what is required by law. It serves as a basis for developing competitive differentiation and trust in the digital era.

Equally important is the significance of continuous security monitoring and proactive threat hunting. Real-time monitoring is effective in detecting unusual activities, while proactive threat hunting anticipates potential threats before they come to fruition. Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments maintain a dynamic defense posture. These strategies of continuous monitoring and threat hunting should be augmented by well-defined incident response protocols and playbooks that outline accountability and roles within the incident response framework.

Another crucial aspect that businesses must consider is the recent shift in the operational dynamics of modern digital-first organizations. With a growing remote workforce and the utilization of multiple cloud platforms and services, the traditional "trust but verify" approach is no longer tenable. The Zero Trust Architecture operates under the premise that no entity or element is inherently reliable, necessitating thorough verification and authorization for all access requests. Implementing systems and policies based on the Zero Trust model also serves as an effective defense against ransomware. By constraining the lateral spread of malware, which often exploits vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure and operational technology, these policies curtail the attack surface. As a result, organizations are better equipped to mitigate the risks associated with these evolving threat landscapes.

The growing adoption of Internet of Things devices and edge computing in the KSA should also be secured by the right set of controls. IoT devices have developed a reputation for having weak cybersecurity procedures throughout development and deployment, which makes them a popular target for attacks. To ensure better security for connected devices, businesses should follow "secure by design" principles if they are creating IoT offerings. They must implement networking and device security procedures that restrict who or what can communicate with connected devices, both inside and outside the business. Additionally, businesses must look to eliminate supply chain risks arising from third-party sources, as this has been a popular vector for cyberattacks over the last few years. A software composition analysis (SCA) tool, which generates a software bill of materials that may be used as proof of secure software development techniques, can be integrated into the software development life cycle to provide visibility into the risks associated with third-party libraries.

Moreover, a critical and persistent shortage of cybersecurity skills in Saudi Arabia poses a significant threat, potentially straining security personnel and leaving both businesses and government agencies exposed to attacks. This deficiency primarily stems from stringent hiring protocols and a scarcity of new talent entering the cybersecurity career path. To address this challenge, businesses should take the lead in establishing robust initiatives to nurture cybersecurity talent from the outset. Strengthening efforts to endorse and facilitate cybersecurity apprenticeships, training programs and educational initiatives is imperative. These endeavors not only enhance diversity but also tackle the unique challenges encountered by vital infrastructure providers and government entities.

In the end, cyber defense is not just about protecting systems; it's about safeguarding the trust of customers, partners and stakeholders. As businesses continue to push the boundaries of technology, they must simultaneously draw the lines that protect what they've built, preserving a future where innovation and security coexist harmoniously.

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