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The Starfish, Our DNA, and the Resiliency of Distributed Enterprise Systems and Networks…

While working as a junior physicist and tactician for the US Navy, a particularly bright Commanding Officer (CO) of our installation issued a suggested reading list for all personnel. I, being one of the few people to regularly visit the tech library, found this gem in the list: “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.

This book really changed the way I though about the defense and security of our most important systems and networks. The premise of the book is that centralized systems have a weakness: their head. If you cut the head off of a spider, you get a dead spider; but if you cut a starfish, it either grows back or you get two starfish. This is an interesting concept.

The hype for this book in defense circles was focused on the War on Terror. It was difficult for military leaders and strategists to plan for a fight against terror groups because there was no “head” to chop off. These groups often grow organically, and they have a tremendous ability to regrow and adapt into new groups when one group is fractured. Also, the ideology spreads and grows new groups when strong leaders are killed. Thus, terrorist organizations are resilient and difficult enemies.

Years later, while working in cybersecurity for the US Army, another great analogy surfaced in conversations between cyber experts and geneticists and immunologists (yes, this was an unorthodox meeting). The human body remains resilient and is able to repair itself not through a centralized brain, but through DNA and a separate immune system which learns and defends against new vulnerabilities. DNA functions as decentralized copies of the entire plan for the human body. Think about it… when you injure your hand, your body does not consult the brain to learn how to fix your hand. Your body has the plans for repairing your hand in every cell, so it looks locally to each individual cell in repairing itself. Then, those “viruses” or injuries to your hand are re-written back to the immune system which learns how to handle the same problems in the future, adding a callous or new cells to defend against threats and vulnerabilities.

Follow through to cybersecurity using that logic. When an existing system or network has an injury or vulnerability from a “virus” or inherent vulnerability, it consults a centralized processor (the brain) with a centralized set of instructions to defend against that virus. Cybersecurity is often referred to as an endless game of whack-a-mole for this reasons. The Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) is constantly learning and attacking until it finally penetrates the central database and centralized defenses for access to the whole prize! No resiliency, no distribution, no defense once the barrier is penetrated.

Thus, breaking up data into distributed databases is essential to dis-incentivize hackers from continually attacking a valuable, centralized store of data. And distributing processing power and network architecture into a decentralized cloud can make an enterprise more resilient to attack and not valuable to hack. Adding an “immune system” to then learn about the constant threats and vulnerabilities and modify the system to repair itself and defend itself better gives you a near-perfect system of cyber defense. In this ideal scenario, cybersecurity acts like more like DNA and the immune system (the Starfish) and less like our current centralized systems with a singularly vulnerable target (the Spider).

This idea of “The Cyber Immune System” was fleshed out over the course of a year in cooperation between my US Army contract team and an advanced biotechnology institute and resulted in a speaking address at the National Cyber Summit. Please contact me at to learn more about this project and the conclusions from our research.

Be a Starfish

Jason Pappafotis