Tech 100: ‘Today’s threat landscape means that no business should assume it is immune to a cyber attack’
Harry McLaren, who recently picked up the Best New Cyber Talent award at the first Scottish Cyber Awards, on how big data can tackle our cyber security woes
Harry McLaren, security consultant at ECS, at the Scottish Cyber Awards 2016 - Image credit: Darren Brogan
2016 has been notable for some fantastic events, like Andy Murray winning his second Wimbledon title and, of course, the Rio Olympics.
But it has also been notable for a remarkable number of malicious events, for example, the sheer volume and scale of the security breaches suffered by some of the world’s most high-profile firms.
Disturbingly, some of the breaches that made the headlines actually occurred months or even years earlier but were only discovered recently.
Today’s cyber security technologies and processes are designed to flag up anomalies and causes for concern in real time, so these delays in identifying breaches shouldn’t be happening in 2016.
Unfortunately, this trend is unlikely to cease without considerable investment in new tools to detect and adapt to these mounting threats.
It doesn’t take an expert to predict that cyber attacks are set to become even more commonplace during 2017 and the types of threats – external attacks, malicious insider attacks or fraud – even more sophisticated.
In this environment, legacy passive security monitoring is no longer fit for purpose.
Fortunately, these depressing newspaper headlines have kickstarted a counter movement. Business leaders are waking up to the very real risks to the company bottom line and reputation, and are ready to take proactive steps to counter these threats.
In practice this means adopting a new, flexible cyber security strategy that uses big data to facilitate ‘always on’ monitoring, fast incident response and the ability to detect and respond to known, unknown and advanced threats.
During my time with ECS I have helped some of the UK’s largest businesses prepare themselves against cyber threats in this way.
For any business that has ‘better preparation against cyber threats’ on its list of New Year’s resolutions, here’s a handy checklist:
- Assume that your computer network – and all devices attached to that network – have been, or currently are, compromised. This will allow you to keep one step ahead of a would-be attacker because you’re operating with the assumption that you’re fighting an active threat, not some old computer virus that just happened to flag up on your antivirus software for the 1,000th time.
- Keep a log of everything: every email, every voicemail and every iteration of a customer database. This applies to all data sources and all data types (audio/video/text etc.). This is important because you can’t predict what data will be lost or altered in a breach. If you suffer a breach, you will need to bring back the entire history of your computer systems and network to find out what happened when and hopefully pinpoint the perpetrators. This becomes even more important when would-be perpetrators are intentionally encrypting data for either ransom or destruction. This is often unrecoverable, so back-ups are also for mitigation.
- Store all of your data in a big data security hub (e.g. a data lake or pool). This will make it much easier to assess any attempted and successful breaches by giving you the ability to search across all of your data and business silos in real time.
Gain valuable, contextual insights from all of your data by using machine learning and behavioural analytics.
These techniques automate most of the legwork and offer up a detailed analysis of information on users, attacks, context, time and location. This leads to much faster threat identification, investigation and response.
The amount of data involved in the steps above gives a clue to the importance of big data in the fight against data breaches.
And this focus on big data analysis also has another upside: it can be used by line of business managers to help them make more informed business decisions, decisions that have a positive effect on the bottom line.
A recent example involved a national retailer who already had data from its website coming into a big data platform to detect security incidents.
After investigating this data, a number of additional (and more business-relevant) use cases emerged and were subsequently developed.
These included fraud detection on the e-commerce part of the website, and tracking and reporting on user stories as they moved through the website.
This enabled the developers to see and track errors in real time before users started complaining on Twitter.
By automating the collection, processing, enrichment and presentation of all this data – and with the right tools and training – line of business personnel will be motivated to analyse any data relevant to their roles themselves, reducing the burden on the IT team.
This self-service model is the key to a mature, agile, data-driven business, enabling businesses to respond quickly to market changes and so gain competitive advantage.
In summary, today’s threat landscape means that no business should assume it is immune to a cyber attack. In fact every business should assume it has been compromised.
Being at least one step ahead by putting in place a range of proactive processes and measures that instantly alert businesses to potential threats is crucial. Big data platforms offer a solid, data-driven approach to these problems.
Harry McLaren is a security consultant for ECS and won the Best New Cyber Talent at the first Scottish Cyber Awards, held last month in Edinburgh
Key figures across the Scottish tech scene revealed
Key figures across the Scottish tech scene revealed
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Sally Smith, Dean of Computing at Edinburgh Napier University, on digital skills and investment for the future