Cyberthreats and attacks have been a negative side effect of our computer age for more than three decades. The first viruses or worms were less harmful, designed to slow a system down or annoy other users. Some even say the first viruses were designed as practical jokes. In 1986, the first malicious virus was discovered. The Brain virus, one of the earliest forms of ransomware (though its creators would remove it for free), went worldwide over a short period of time.
In subsequent decades, more aggressive viruses were introduced that attacked a user’s contact list and overwrote files. The fix for these computer bugs was simple. Consumers and businesses used good antivirus software that searched computers for known entities and was updated monthly, weekly and, eventually, daily. Today, those threats seem quaint as security professionals grapple with the likes of ransomware such WannaCry, which infected more than 300,000 systems across the globe in less than a day. Security executives were left with systems that had illicitly encrypted data that would stay that way indefinitely unless they were willing to pay a ransom for the key.
“What’s interesting about [WannaCry] is that it spread via the network. In other words, this isn’t a piece of malware that you have to get a user to click on or you have to get them to visit a website to infect them,” explained Forrester principal analyst Jeff Pollard on the company’s “What It Means” podcast. “If a machine is vulnerable…it can get in and propagate.” In addition, these threats are created by a small number of bad actors spread out across the world who are looking for financial gain while globally disrupting businesses.
Choose Your Weapon
The most interesting thing about WannaCry and its ilk is that there are no jolly hackers orchestrating the infections. Instead, the cyberattacks are executed by state-sponsored hackers who are looking to fund other terrorism as well as lone criminals looking to strike it rich off the vulnerabilities of others. And now, with the emergence of untraceable cryptocurrency, there’s little or no way for these criminals to get caught.
“The type of threats you might be preparing for don’t necessarily match you as an organization. You can be disrupted by an entity that is much smaller than you are,” says Pollard.
That’s not to say there’s no recourse or protection against these next-generation hackers. Although traditional antivirus programs may not be as effective where malware is concerned, next-generation security products fill the gap left by them.
Experts suggest that organizations can stay a step ahead by tapping services that make use of the cloud and artificial intelligence. For instance, using a cloud-based AI system comprised of 11,000 cloud servers, security company Avast can detect and learn about new threats as they happen. This effectively protects users against the malware and ransomware of today and tomorrow. It can do this because the Avast Security Cloud checks more than 200 billion URLs and 300 million new files monthly, scanning for anomalies and threats, and thwarting 2 billion attacks each month.
“Big data and machine learning allows you to react to threats within milliseconds where it used to take hours or days to react,” explains Vince Steckler, CEO of Avast. “For example, with WannaCry, some security products—including ours—absolutely protected users by incorporating AI.”
This becomes especially important as Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as your smart TV, IP cameras or smart speakers—which are always on and always connected—become more pervasive, giving bad actors more entry points for malware infection. Rajarshi Gupta, VP of Data Science at Avast, says that cloud-based AI can protect against IoT infection because it can efficiently uncover anomalies in behavior, blocking access and malware in the process. “IoT devices typically have behaviors that are very structured and repetitive,” he says. “This makes it easy to model their behavior so that when the service sees any differences, we can detect that something bad is happening and take actions to block it.”
In the end, companies can protect themselves by utilizing software and services that are dedicated to being one step ahead of the bad guys, says Gupta. “Teach your employees not to do risky or dangerous things on the internet and, as a company, use security software from a reputable vendor like Avast.”
Previously published on Reuters Plus website.