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AI arms race has begun

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By SIMON MCCULLOUGH, major channel account manager at F5 Networks

It’s no news that advances in AI and machine learning have enormous transformative potential for cybersecurity defences.

However, rapid advances in technology also result in big opportunities for hackers to get smarter and faster. So, when it comes to cybersecurity, is AI a friend or foe?

Although the AI arms race is just beginning, the ultimate potential for automated threats is vast and unknown. AI-based malware alone will soon become a widespread plague, so businesses need to pay attention or risk getting caught out.

Automated threats on the rise

We’ve already started to see how AI-based malware can be used to scale up attacks. Polymorphic malware, for instance, can constantly adapt so its code can’t be identified. TrickBot is another example of a stealthy threat that has evolved and expanded its capabilities from a banking trojan to target credit card companies and wealth management services.

With TrickBot, the threat’s code enters a network and infects systems automatically, making it difficult to detect and mitigate as it changes to avoid detection. TrickBot is also known for its resilient infrastructure, including command and control (C&C) servers set up on hacked routers, many unique C&C IP addresses, as well as regular updates to make it harder to take down.

Where next?

It is conceivable that we’ll soon see a rise in AI-powered phishing emails, high-quality spam and a vast proliferation of false flags. We’re already noticing this with threats like TrickBot, which consistently use email spam and phishing campaigns as its initial attack pattern. As a result, it is imperative that businesses train their employees to spot potentially fake emails, not to open suspicious file attachments or click on questionable embedded links. Currently web application firewalls can help detect and mitigate banking trojans, but businesses need to ensure they are updated regularly to keep pace with AI-powered threats.

Intriguingly, AI could soon be used to conceal malware presence in a victim’s network and combine various attack techniques to identify the most effective disruptive option. In time, hackers will be able to use AI to bypass security algorithms. It is critical that all likely targets – and few are immune – start to harness AI to fight back.

The business battle

AI’s widespread adoption across different areas of a business can make it difficult to understand where to best deploy security systems, and where to focus cybersecurity teams’ efforts.

Organisations need to ask themselves a series of questions. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the IT infrastructures? Who in the cybersecurity team is fighting the attacks? Where are resources required to better cope with AI-based threats? What employee and industry behaviours influence security defences? Answering these kind of questions makes it easier to determine the best use of AI.

The key is to adopt a prevent, detect and response strategy. If deployed correctly, AI can be used to collect intelligence about new threats, attempted attacks and successful breaches. It can detect abnormalities within an organisation’s network and flag them more quickly than a human ever could.

Businesses can also make life difficult for hackers by isolating vulnerable applications. This is a useful method to reduce threat risk and render malware harmless by allowing it to fully execute in a completely isolated, contained environment. Crucially, it helps protect against the most common attack vectors, such as malicious downloads, plug-ins and email attachments. As the use of apps across organisations continues to soar, these are the areas hackers will target with AI-powered

attacks. Securing applications must always be a key concern for business leaders looking to ensure IT infrastructures are continually protected, despite new technologies entering the market.

AI versus AI

The business case for AI in cybersecurity is strong, and the operational efficiencies of automation are becoming clearer with each passing day. Even so, it is important to not entirely rely on automation. It is not a silver bullet, and security teams should still be present in frontline roles. For example, there will always be a need for specific human knowledge and interaction with application services. Cybersecurity as a discipline currently boasts one of the widest uses of AI in the enterprise space, and it’s clear that adoption isn’t slowing any time soon. Everyone needs to remember that AI can be both a weapon of mass destruction and a vital part of the solution.

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Seedstars seeks tech to reverse land degradation in Africa

A new partnership is offering prizes to young entrepreneurs for coming up with innovations that tackle the loss of arable land in Africa.

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The DOEN Foundation has joined forces with Seedstars, an emerging market startup community, to launch the DOEN Land Restoration Prize, which showcases solutions to environmental, social and financial challenges that focus on land restoration activities in Africa. Stichting DOEN is a Dutch fund that supports green, socially-inclusive and creative initiatives that contribute to a better and cleaner world.

While land degradation and deforestation date back millennia, industrialization and a rising population have dramatically accelerated the process. Today we are seeing unprecedented land degradation, and the loss of arable land at 30 to 35 times the historical rate.

Currently, nearly two-thirds of Africa’s land is degraded, which hinders sustainable economic development and resilience to climate change. As a result, Africa has the largest restoration opportunity of any continent: more than 700 million hectares (1.7 billion acres) of degraded forest landscapes that can be restored. The potential benefits include improved food and water security, biodiversity protection, climate change resilience, and economic growth. Recognizing this opportunity, the African Union set an ambitious target to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.

Land restoration is an urgent response to the poor management of land. Forest and landscape restoration is the process of reversing the degradation of soils, agricultural areas, forests, and watersheds thereby regaining their ecological functionality. According to the World Resources Institute, for every $1 invested in land restoration it can yield $7-$30 in benefits, and now is the time to prove it.

The winner of the challenge will be awarded 9 months access to the Seedstars Investment Readiness Program, the hybrid program challenging traditional acceleration models by creating a unique mix to improve startup performance and get them ready to secure investment. They will also access a 10K USD grant.

“Our current economic system does not meet the growing need to improve our society ecologically and socially,” says Saskia Werther, Program Manager at the DOEN Foundation. “The problems arising from this can be tackled only if a different economic system is considered. DOEN sees opportunities to contribute to this necessary change. After all, the world is changing rapidly and the outlines of a new economy are becoming increasingly clear. This new economy is circular and regenerative. Landscape restoration is a vital part of this regenerative economy and social entrepreneurs play an important role to establish innovative business models to counter land degradation and deforestation. Through this challenge, DOEN wants to highlight the work of early-stage restoration enterprises and inspire other frontrunners to follow suit.”

Applications are open now and will be accepted until October 15th. Startups can apply here: http://seedsta.rs/doen

To enter the competition, startups should meet the following criteria:

  • Existing startups/young companies with less than 4 years of existence
  • Startups that can adapt their current solution to the land restoration space
  • The startup must have a demonstrable product or service (Minimum Viable Product, MVP)
  • The startup needs to be scalable or have the potential to reach scalability in low resource areas.
  • The startup can show clear environmental impact (either by reducing a negative impact or creating a positive one)
  • The startup can show a clear social impact
  • Technology startups, tech-enabled startups and/or businesses that can show a clear innovation component (e.g. in their business model)

Also, a specific emphasis is laid, but not limited to: Finance the restoration of degraded land for production and/or conservation purposes; big data and technology to reverse land degradation; resource efficiency optimization technologies, ecosystems impacts reduction and lower carbon emissions; water-saving soil technologies; technologies focused on improving livelihoods and communities ; planning, management and education tools for land restoration; agriculture (with a focus on precision conservation) and agroforestry; clean Energy solutions that aid in the combat of land degradation; and responsible ecotourism that aids in the support of land restoration.

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The dark side of apps

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Mobile device security threats are on the rise and it’s not hard to see why. In 2019 the number of worldwide mobile phone users is forecast to reach 4.68 billion of which 2.7 billion are smartphone users. So, if you are looking for a target, it certainly makes sense to go where the numbers are. Think about it, unsecured Wi-Fi connections, network spoofing, phishing attacks, ransomware, spyware and improper session handling – mobile devices make for the perfect easy target. In fact, according to Kaspersky, mobile apps are often the cause of unintentional data leakage.

“Apps pose a real problem for mobile users, who give them sweeping permissions, but don’t always check security,” says Riaan Badenhorst, General Manager for Kaspersky in Africa. “These are typically free apps found in official app stores that perform as advertised, but also send personal – and potentially corporate – data to a remote server, where it is mined by advertisers or even cybercriminals. Data leakage can also happen through hostile enterprise-signed mobile apps. Here, mobile malware uses distribution code native to popular mobile operating systems like iOS and Android to spread valuable data across corporate networks without raising red flags.”

In fact, according to recent reports, 6 Android apps that were downloaded a staggering 90 million times from the Google Play Store were found to have been loaded with the PreAMo malware, while another recent threat saw 50 malware-filled apps on the Google Play Store infect over 30 million Android devices. Surveillance malware was also loaded onto fake versions of Android apps such as Evernote, Google Play and Skype.

Considering that as of 2019, Android users were able to choose between 2.46 million apps, while Apple users have almost 1.96 million app options to select from, and that the average person has 60-90 apps installed on their phone, using around 30 of them each month and launching 9 per day – it’s easy to see how viral apps take several social media channels by storm.

“In this age where users jump onto a bandwagon because it’s fun or trendy, the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) can overshadow basic security habits – like being vigilant on granting app permissions,” says Bethwel Opil, Enterprise Sales Manager at Kaspersky in Africa. “In fact, accordingly to a previous Kaspersky study, the majority (63%) of consumers do not read license agreements and 43% just tick all privacy permissions when they are installing new apps on their phone. And this is exactly where the danger lies – as there is certainly ‘no harm’ in joining online challenges or installing new apps.”

However, it is dangerous when users just grant these apps limitless permissions into their contacts, photos, private messages, and more. “Doing so allows the app makers possible, and even legal, access to what should remain confidential data. When this sensitive data is hacked or misused, a viral app can turn a source into a loophole which hackers can exploit to spread malicious viruses or ransomware,” adds Badenhorst. 

As such, online users should always have their thinking caps on and be more careful when it comes to the internet and their app habits including:

  • Only download apps from trusted sources. Read the reviews and ratings of the apps as well
  • Select apps you wish to install on your devices wisely
  • Read the license agreement carefully
  • Pay attention to the list of permissions your apps are requesting. Only give apps permissions they absolutely insist on, and forgo any programme that asks for more than necessary
  • Avoid simply clicking “next” during an app installation
  • For an additional security layer, be sure to have a security solution installed on your device

“While the app market shows no signs of slowing down, it is changing,” says Opil. “Consumers download the apps they love on their devices which in turn gives them access to content that is relevant and useful. The future of apps will be in real-world attribution, influenced by local content and this type of tailored in-app experience will lead consumers to share their data more willing in a trusted, premium app environment in exchange for more personalised experiences. But until then, proceed with caution.”

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