The new normal, but is it really new?

This week’s blog article stems from a nice exchange of emails with Koen Maris, our Cybersecurity Leader. In the midst of the exchange one of us referred to “the next normal” as the new buzzword we may want to be using. “New normal, next normal, you name it, what’s new about it?”, replied Koen. 

As a result, we figured there were enough elements to share a blog article about reflections of our cybersecurity leader not precisely about cybersecurity (or only tangentially). 

Buzzwords can be evil. When a word is used indiscriminately, it doesn’t end up losing its meaning but the sense and depth of what it helps to convey. 

This article dissects what the new (or even the next) normal means to Koen Maris and, by extension, to cybersecurity. 

A brief resume of cybersecurity trends

“The COVID-19 pandemic is having unexpected side effects […], some of them are truly negative, but some are undeniably positive”, we stated in this article on the most powerful ideas of the Cybersecurity Days 2020.  

We very much  liked what Koen said to the audience, mostly online, when attending the event’s plenary session: “Somehow, I’m grateful for COVID because it has heightened the awareness around cybersecurity”. That was courageous and arguably few could deny it is true. The old-fashioned saying about clouds and  silver linings exists for a reason.

Pandemic pathogens and cyber viruses behave similarly, Koen told us months ago. In fact, we draw a parallel between cyber attacks and COVID-19, and the lessons people that are managing the crises can (still) learn from cybersecurity. 

The battle against COVID-19 boosted cyberattacks and fraud because we were –  and still are – busy fighting the battle of our lives. However, by no means, învidivuals and businesses should lower their guards. 

First off, get these basics right to start winning the cybersecurity battle, regardless of the pandemic.

Second, keep an eye on the threat trends. In fact, there are five of them that have been more conspicuous during the pandemic and will continue to be prominent throughout 2021 according to our colleagues from PwC UK. We asked Koen if he agrees with them or if he would add or change any of them. He replied they were pretty accurate.

Here they are:

1) Ransomware isn’t going anywhere but up. Find all details on what this type of cyberattack is in this podcast;

2) The use of frequent affairs as bait, where phishing and smishing are common tactics to “seduce” users to click on virulent links or download malicious content; 

3) Supply chain attacks. Major incidents happened last year. In some cases, several threat actors jeopardised the same supplier. Access privileges and how much room to maneuver  the IT management and security software has are key questions that businesses should be asking to limit this type of attacks;

4) Social engineering, or the use of social media platforms such as LinkedIn where the threat actors engage with the target and nurture a trustworthy several-week relationship that could continue on Whatsapp or email. This, until they get the target to open malicious attachments such as job offers that infect systems.

5) The rise of the defenders, with both public and private sector organisations not only sharpening their cyber strategies and coordinating efforts to tackle malicious cyber activity but also sharing more information among them. 

A conversation with Koen: people, the next normal and cybersecurity

Koen, this buzzword “the next normal”, what’s it to you?

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of hearing it. The new or next normal, will it be that different from what we already know or will it radically change cybersecurity?” wondered Koen. 

Then, he continued, “These are questions that I ask myself constantly when I read countless articles referring to “the next normal”:

  • Is it truly about flexibility?
  • Will it, maybe, give more control to us as individuals to organise our work and report back?
  • Is it about staring at portable devices all week long during and outside of business hours and being “on” all the time?
  • May we think of it as having less and less chance to access a physical shop and being compelled to use an online shop?

“None of them are new, disruptive or require breakthrough high-tech, I think,” he added. “It’s our lives, enhanced by technology, at least for some activities.” 

And, quite frankly, all of the situations described above have been, somehow, present already prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. What may have changed is the scale of them, their ubiquity. 

So, how have you experienced this so-called next normal before?

In one of my previous jobs at a multinational information technology company, we already had a culture of working from home. It was fully allowed; indeed, there was no obligation to go to the office. 

Using cloud technologies enabled us to have high-speed access to many of the services. We were already living a sort of self-embraced isolation—or solitude—from Monday to Friday. I must admit the nuances of what one feels when deciding to stay home versus being obliged to stay home are quite a few.

I remember seeing my colleagues via some conferencing tools, and picking up the phone only if something urgent happened.

At PwC Luxembourg we applied it on a smaller scale before the pandemic, but today it has become the norm for obvious reasons. I don’t want to be judgemental here; after all, it delivers as expected. Though it isn’t all shimmer and shine. There are issues on communication, getting engaged, building team spirit and conducting business with new customers or suppliers.

And regarding online shopping, could you elaborate on this matter?

Prior to Covid-19 I could use online shops and have goods delivered at home. Of course, local shops are quickly adding online transactions to their selling strategy and jumping actively on the online wagon now but, honestly, it will be extremely difficult to keep up for many of them. Because, simply, large online outlets or big retailers apply an aggressive pricing model to take customers from their physical peers.

On the other hand, take-away food, that possibility has been present for decades! It is now an almost omnipresent service, that’s true, triggered by the need for survival and I don’t know to what extent it will remain. However, what is really remarkable is the fact that we’ll be eager to go to a restaurant like never before!

But, honestly, under the umbrella of the new normal, I don’t expect anything revolutionary in restaurants. They might keep the idea of having digital menus, or even operating on a reservation-only mechanism, but I don’t expect a robot hovering around, picking up the orders with a hollow and metallic sounding voice. We aren’t quite there yet. I might be wrong, only time will tell.

Home-base work allows for more flexibility. Does it have any downside?

When we speak about flexibility for everyone, I’m fully in favour. Nevertheless, many of the existing evaluation processes require an adjustment. Some of them, indeed, are already outdated. Which evaluation criteria will work with a flexible working system? Because, in many cases, time is the measure applied to look into employees’ achievements.

Let’s go beyond evaluations matters. I think what’s more valuable is reflecting on what we take from this experience. It’s true, we have more time at home yet not always with the quality we expect for various reasons, sometimes personal, others professional.

Being honest with myself, I have not seen anything radical change these last 12 months. To me, it seems that I’m using the old version of my life enhanced by new technology that allows me to squeeze out extra time. How each of us takes advantage of the extra time, that is another matter.

For instance commuting – that burdening trip to the office – might be that special moment that some of us desperately need, especially when the house walls feel like getting tighter and tighter every single week. I’ve got colleagues for whom working in jogging  clothes has been comfortable until now, but 12 months in a row feels too long already.

If there is one thing that the so-called new or next normal will bring, it’s the need for a personal, organisational and even collective balancing act.

What would your urgent recommendation be for the future?

We need to free up the youth, and that goes beyond the physical aspect. Imagine you turned 18 in 2020, or the 2020’s summer was the first time your children had money in their pockets because they were working full time, or you are someone who has just finished high school. These are moments you can never get back, that you can’t ever buy. 

Some youngsters haven’t yet met their fellow students in real life. They have so far seen them through LCD or OLED screens by means of a fancy online collaboration software. 

And those in the last phase of their lives due to a severe illness, some of them couldn’t even see their beloved ones, make their wish list come true, or enjoy a well-deserved holiday. I feel very sorry for the ones left behind.

Of course, I understand there has been –  and there is still –  a lot of misery, sadness, grief and tears over these months, but we truly need to get ready for the near future, for the awakening. There are more people surviving the pandemic who will require incentives, a boost, motivation, and who will need to be mentally healthy. After all, there isn’t true health if the mental part is under considered. 

Otherwise we’ll soon have a society with a depression pandemic. Our youth is the future, let’s give them the keys so they can unlock it.

And also, I truly think, it’s time for a different kind of leadership.

What we think

Koen Maris, Cybersecurity Leader at PwC Luxembourg

The new normal is old wine in a new bottle. We need a utopia, a far fetched idea coming across as impossible. Let’s stop surfing on legacy.

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