Pat Benatar once said “Love is a battlefield.” That may or may not be true, but one thing is for sure— the digital landscapes of corporations and governments around the world are certainly the new battlefield. Cyber-warfare has been a thing for at least a few decades, but today, instead of people fighting with guns and bombs, robots are waging war against a wide range of targets using the World Wide Web. And central to this fight is Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is fueled by Machine Learning.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that more than 121.6 million new malware programs were discovered in 2017, according to a report by German research institute AV-Test GmbH. And, this number is only going to increase.
Humans Behind the Bots
Some of the smartest minds in the technology and software industry have been working at making AI smarter, to the point where we now have what is referred to as “deep learning”. A little known fact about AI: the seeds of modern AI were planted by classical philosophers who attempted to describe the process of human thinking as the mechanical manipulation of symbols.
This thinking culminated in the invention of the programmable digital computer in the 1940s and 1950’s, when a machine was built based on the abstract essence of mathematical reasoning. Around this time, In 1957, Frank Rosenblatt at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory laid down machine learning’s foundation in statistical methods. (Incidentally, Rosenblatt’s work was influenced by Alan Turing).
Because Machine Learning employs algorithms that learn from the data, it continues to get smarter and smarter over time, increasing its ability recognize patterns in data and behavior. Apparently, this is why your Alexa supposedly is more accurate after she gets to “know” you. The type of mechanical “self actualization” can be leveraged by people with good will or ill will. Therefore, we can see that it’s hard for the leading CIOs and CSOs around the world to keep up with the hackers behind the malware is not an easy job
For this reason, resources and Security budgets at corporations are steadily increasing year over year. The quest for digital transformation coupled with an array of new regulatory concerns and cyberattacks is driving enterprises to invest in cybersecurity. According to Gartner, worldwide cybersecurity spending will have climbed to $96 billion by the end of 2018. The analyst group said that the number represents an 8 percent rise in overall investment in antivirus, intrusion detection, monitoring and other tools to safeguard data. The driving force behind this cybersecurity spending is a fear of data breaches.
Zeros & Ones Go Head to Head
In WWII, military around the world donned uniforms to fight opposing forces that were much easier to identify. Instead of taking down a company’s entire network, or a government, bullets were fired and bombs dropped. It was, relatively speaking, slow moving physical combat which took a lot of human capital to staff and mobilize. Now the blitzkrieg is virtual, silent, invisible and extremely mobile.
AI powered systems can sniff out and detect would-be hackers and network attacks that put companies at risk, making it possible for Security systems to mine and analyze information on registries and online databases. These good bots find clues about the infrastructure that criminals set up to launch attacks, such as domain names of websites and IP addresses associated with the devices they use for hacking. The name of the game is to stay ahead of the malware or Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.
Some experts believe that detection is not necessarily prevention. Effective detection requires vendors to keep virus registries 100% current – an impossible task – and stymied by AI-powered algorithms not being able to distinguish between malicious and benign code 100% of the time. In order to stop the files before they cause damage requires your engine to be one step ahead of the known or unknown culprit.
Battlefield of the Future & the Most Devastating Cyber Attack Yet
To get a sense of what the future looks like when it comes to Cybersecurity, we will share the story of NotPetya, the most devastating Cybersecurity breach in history thus far. In August of this year, Wired Magazine reported on the crippling attack on Danish company A.P. Møller-Maersk, whose eight business units range from ports to logistics to oil drilling, in 574 offices in 130 countries around the globe. On June 27, 2017 confused Maersk staffers began to gather at that help desk in twos and threes, almost all of them carrying laptops. On the machines’ screens were messages in red and black lettering. Some read “repairing file system on C:” with a stark warning not to turn off the computer. Others, more surreally, read “oops, your important files are encrypted” and demanded a payment of $300 worth of bitcoin to decrypt them. The end result?
In a matter of hours, the maritime giant responsible for 76 ports on all sides of the earth and nearly 800 seafaring vessels, including container ships carrying tens of millions of tons of cargo, representing close to a fifth of the entire world’s shipping capacity, was dead in the water. The saboteurs used that back door to release a piece of malware called ’NotPetya’, their most vicious cyber-weapon yet, originally targeted at the Ukraine but ended up being the equivalent to a nuclear bomb affecting governments and companies like Møller-Maersk.
Imagine what would happen if the 911 Emergency services were rendered helpless by an attack like this. Utter chaos and sheer pandemonium, a reality that was further illustrated when a teenager from Arizona actually executed a successful attack against iPhones and the emergency response system. “By infecting the mobile devices with malware, he was able to program the phones to repeatedly call 911 and then immediately disconnect. More than 100 fraudulent calls were made in just a few minutes, putting the emergency center under significant strain and risking their ability to maintain service and response to genuine emergencies in a timely fashion.”
Human beings have been fighting wars for centuries. Just because the technology or tools change does not necessarily mean we will cease going to war, unfortunately. Bombs and tear gas may soon be a thing of the past, but the battlefield of the future looks as if it may be littered with frozen computers, downed networks, lost data and crippled zeros and ones.
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