Times are a changin’

At the start of a new year we look ahead to identify broad technological advancements with disruptive potential – and examine likely security implications. I believe there are two trends which will shape IT security in a profound way.

Many future scenarios are forecast – and indeed likely: major cyber attacks are expected to have increasingly severe consequences for individuals, organisations and economies while traditional AV effectiveness continues to decline; organisations are predicted to move more and more IT functions into the cloud; remote working will become more prevalent, making secure access a priority; proliferation of endpoints as IoT gains momentum, with resulting DDoS threats as we have already seen from Mirai; mobile will be even more central; operating systems more secure. However this post focusses on two major technology trends which will have huge impact – Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain.

AI, and specifically Machine Learning (ML), is becoming better and better at doing what humans have always done. The performance of image recognition and speech recognition these days is truly impressive, with error rates often better than humans. Progress has been made on more complex AI challenges such as identifying and understanding emotions. AI will displace a number of jobs in the near-to-medium term – such as truck drivers, paralegals, and even software developers. A Japanese insurance firm is replacing 34 claims adjustors with AI. Robotics can do many physical tasks. A 2015 Forrester report concluded that 25% of all job tasks would be replaced by AI by 2019. New jobs will supplant many lost ones and people will need to upskill.

In the security field, AI/ML increasingly powers defence mechanisms to identify patterns, for use in spam filtering, phishing protection, malware detection, network intrusion and biometric recognition. Cyber attackers will also make adversarial use of AI/ML. As AI/ML-based defence relies on algorithms, these could be counteracted. The challenge for security solution developers is going to be how to deal with cyber attacks which take into consideration AI/ML-based defence measures, and use their own AI/ML to counter attack like a galactic robotic battle. The winner of these battles will oscillate between defender and attacker – likely having serious impacts on IT security landscape in the process.

Blockchain technology is poised to take off across a variety of domains. The technology has inherent security attributes with multiple copies of the blockchain ledger ensuring a high degree of trust in the data. Obvious applications include public registers for land ownership as well as for high-value assets such as diamonds, for identity records, health care records, smart contracts and banking. The technology can be useful in areas such as key management for PKI encryption, ensuring data integrity while maintaining data transparency, and in storing DNS entries thereby helping mitigate DDoS attacks. Over a billion dollars are reported to have been invested in blockchain-related start-ups. However the technology does pose new security challenges such as consensus hijacking and smart contract management.

Security will continue to be central for any new technology in the face of threats growing in intensity and sophistication. Even though some technology trends such as more secure operating systems and devices are helpful, severe attacks from state and criminal actors are eroding CIOs’ confidence. Prof Richard Benham of the National Cyber Centre predicts that a major bank will fail this year as a consequence of cyber attack.

It may be AI and Blockchain where the most intense battles are held – and which will thereby shape the IT landscape more than others. Security operations which will thrive going forward are those keeping a sharp eye on disruptive technology and trends, those capable of rapidly reacting to meet emerging needs. In the words of a great Nobel Prize winner:

For the loser now will be later to win

For the times they are a changin’


There’s a battle outside ragin’

It’ll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a changin’

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