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Cyber-security futures: A tale of Iron Men and Avocados

This year the BT-Pembroke lecture was given by Professor Ben Azvine.

Professor Ben Azvine is Global Head of Security Research and Innovation at BT. On the 20th November he gave a talk that was, as he put it, “stimulating, frightening, encouraging and hopeful”.

Cyber-security is one of the greatest man-made challenges of our time, and it affects everyone.  Huge technological advances are making life easier for us, but also for anyone who wants to set up a cyber-attack. Companies like BT are heavily investing in building defences, but the threat environment is constantly evolving and cyber-defence is still in the early stages. Cyber-security is an arms race, with the ‘bad guys’ constantly evolving new weapons.  The viruses of the 90s are relatively easy to detect and counter, but the worms, spyware and ransomware created since are much more difficult. The most complex kind are Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), which are so sophisticated that they require the kind of resources usually only available to nation states; they do, however, get into the wrong hands once made. Stuxnet was one of these. The number of threats has increased 1000% in the last six months. BT blocks 2 million viruses every month, and deals with 5 million attempted attacks.

The future of cyber-attacks? Disruption. Attacks we are most familiar with – like phishing – are usually about taking information or money from someone. They require you to open the lock by clicking a link or a similar action.  Of greater concern to Professor Azvine are attacks on control systems that weren’t originally designed to be connected to the internet, like the electricity grid. Critical national infrastructure is alarmingly vulnerable, and future security solutions need to adapt.

avocadoThis is where the avocados come in. Nothing is completely secure, and to make it so would render a system totally unusable.  Instead, we need to focus on response and what happens once a threat breaches the initial barrier.  Not a coconut – where everything depends on an impenetrable outer barrier – but an avocado, with different levels of security and a tightly protected core containing crucial systems and information. An unusual metaphor, but certainly illuminating.

Evolution of technology is creating huge challenges and opportunities for cyber-security. Professor Azvine identified four: AI, big data, quantum computing, and the internet of things. Developments like quantum computing create opportunities for faster, more efficient problem-solving on a scale our current technology can’t begin to compete with, but the same is true of ways to break encryption and disrupt people’s lives, like remotely stopping or accelerating self-driving cars. The internet of things is creating billions of tiny computers, and an equally big security problem.

Big data and Artificial Intelligence, on the other hand, are making it much easier to spot anomalies that signify the early stages of a cyber-attack.  By using AI to support rather than replace humans – Iron Man, not Terminator – processing data becomes a simpler task. BT is creating systems that use AI to visualise vast quantities of data in a way that makes it much simpler for human experts to spot and respond to attacks.  Professor Azvine calls this ‘intelligence augmentation’. The easier we can make it for humans and computers to interact and collaborate, and the more transparent AI processes become, the easier it will be to respond quickly and effectively to cyber-attacks. This was all concisely summarised by Professor Azvine with, “we need to simplify security”.

Cyber-security BT

BT data analytics: visualising cyber-security

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