Business Technology

The future of cyber security – it’s smarter than the humans

9 min read

05 July 2016

It seems counter-intuitive to believe but it’s true, for even smart people make stupid mistakes – the future of cyber security is smarter than humans.

Image: Shutterstock

100 cyber security professionals were asked by Intel-McAfee to look at a selection of real and fake emails and separate the two. Something you’d think they, as experts, would be highly capable of.

However, the results were shocking.

Only six of the experts got them all right. Most of the experts could only identify six or seven of the ten emails correctly. If that’s the best the experts can do, what hope you might say is there for us “normal” folk?

This one-in-three chance of letting a fake email slip through your defences explains why email phishing has proved to be an evergreen criminal tactic. And one mistake is all it takes to open the virtual door to malware or hackers. In the 20 years since they first emerged as a threat, phishing emails are still persuading people into click-away their personal data or download malware.

And the costs of a data breach show no sign of falling. According to a UK government-backed report last year, the “starting point” for a large business to recover from a security breach – counting the cost of business disruption, lost sales, recovery of assets, and fines and compensation – is now £1.46m.

Small businesses might face smaller costs, a mere £75,000, but that may still cripple their finances if not their business entirely.

The same research also makes clear who is to blame: “inadvertent human error”.

It appears we are making honest but elementary mistakes. When it comes to identifying and dealing with digital risks, the human brain is clearly falling short and in need of some assistance.

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But are computers any better?

It seems not. Computers aren’t perfect. They can’t identify every fake email – some slip though the net. Many traditional cyber security tools take a long time to correctly identify a data breach.

Malicious attacks can take an average of 256 days to identify, according to the Ponemon Institute’s 2015 Cost of Breach Study: Global Analysis. Meanwhile, the data breaches caused by human error take an average of 158 days to identify. The words horse and bolted spring to mind.

Two-thirds of the time IT staff spend dealing with security alerts is also spent on handling false-positives or false-negatives. Incorrectly identifying a potential threat is a waste of precious business time and resources.

What’s needed is a faster, more accurate way of identifying threats and dealing with them. We need something faster and smarter than the technology that’s already in play. We also need something smarter than we are.

On the next page, read on for details on the super-computer that won a game show, and why we need smart support.

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We need cognitive computing

Cast your mind back to February 2011 – it probably doesn’t stand out for most people but it should. Because that’s when something called “Watson” – IBM’s super-computer – grabbed headlines around the world for beating two all-time human champions at the American quiz show Jeopardy, walking (figuratively) away with the $1m jackpot.

It might not have seemed important at the time but winning the quiz demonstrated Watson’s power to surpass the human brain in unravelling answers from disparate pieces of seemingly unrelated information.

Watson demonstrated an understanding of how colourful and complex human language can be. It understood puns, double-meanings, riddles, metaphors and all manner of other linguistic idiosyncrasies.

This was the beginning of the era of “cognitive computing”: machines built to interpret, learn and apply that knowledge to solve problems.

It’s a narrow form of artificial intelligence; not the super-intelligent machines of science fiction. Instead this technology is designed to match and surpass human capability in a single or focused sphere. It can adapt and interpret different input signals. It can weigh risks.

To date, one major obstacle to cognitive computing is the fact that the majority of information online is “unstructured” – and certainly not in a strict question and answer format. Cognitive computers are trying to make sense of that jungle of data and detect unseen patterns and formulate connections.

As for Watson, it’s learning to become a virtual Sherlock Holmes and tackle cyber-threats when traditional tools like firewalls and antivirus are struggling to keep up, usually because they work retrospectively. They can only defend against a known threat, not new ones that it’s never encountered before.

Thankfully Watson doesn’t have to start from scratch in this respect. It has access to IBM’s two decades’ worth of cyber security research and a library containing the details of eight million spam and phishing attacks and tens of thousands of known vulnerabilities.

Watson is not the only cognitive cyber sleuth on the case though.

Daniel Kaufman, head of advanced technology projects at Google, recently revealed that behavioural biometric authenticators would be applied to its Android mobile platform next year.

In plain English, that means the device could look at your location and WiFi network, the date and time – and even your typing speed on the keyboard – to assess risk based on your known patterns of behaviour.

Your “trust score” would vary depending on the nature of the online activity you were participating in, or about to participate in. If the score isn’t trustworthy enough, Android might decide to limit your access to a banking app, but be perfectly happy to let you access Facebook.

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Smart support might save us from ourselves

Think of cognitive computers as a personal performance coach – they’ll be available on demand in real time and reduce the chances of making an online mistake.

Your cognitive computer will monitor and learn your patterns of behaviour to create a baseline of what “normal” is for you as a unique user and prompt or guide you “just in time”. No more mistaking fake for real, or real for fake.

So what will be the long-term impact of cognitive systems like Watson and Google’s behavioural biometric analysis? According to IBM, cyber-criminals will “find the payoffs to be harder and harder to achieve.”

But for you? You’ll have more time to focus on the work that matters – and less time worrying about whether or not you’re going to make a mistake.

Mike Foreman is a veteran of the cyber-security industry and European MD of Nuro Secure Messaging, an enterprise instant messaging app with military grade security.

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