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Cyber crooks ramp up for holidays as consumers relax

As consumers slow down for the year-end break, cybercriminals are entering their biggest time of the year yet, writes DOROS HADJIZENONOS.

As consumers wind down for a much-needed year-end break, cybercriminals are entering their busiest time of year. A time when consumers are quick to snap up festive season savings and when they use their devices more for entertainment and less for work.

While most people will be reading books or letting their children play games on their devices, some will still access their work emails and documents at the beach. It is therefore crucial that businesses adopt robust, user-friendly security technology that protects users when they’re not in the office.

Ideally, all business-sensitive information should be stored in a capsule on devices that is separate from the user’s personal information. The password-protected capsule should only be accessible by authorised users and should encrypt all information stored within it so that the data remains secure if the device is lost or stolen.

Ignorance is not bliss

Information security cannot only be the responsibility of the IT department, especially when users access private and business information on one device. Not only should users take steps to protect their devices but they should also be aware of the tactics used by cybercriminals to trick people into downloading malicious apps or visiting harmful websites. They should also use common sense when granting apps permission to access information on their devices – a photo editing app does not need access to a phone’s contacts list, for example.

Festive season cybercrime tactics often involve “discounts” when shopping online or through a retailer’s app. What consumers are often unaware of is that, even though the app or URL look legitimate, they are not have been designed with the sole purpose of stealing information.

The fact that users can often bypass app stores and download apps directly from publishers’ websites has made it easier for cybercriminals to trick people. By simply sending an email that appears to come from a trusted retailer, prompting the user to download its app to receive a R200 discount voucher, hackers take advantage of unsuspecting shoppers looking to save money on their festive expenses, simply by directing them to a link that downloads a fake app.

All it takes is one click and the app will have access to a user’s camera, microphone, GPS location, contacts, calendar and anything else the user allows it to, because let’s face it, no one reads the list of permissions when downloading apps; we blindly accept the terms and conditions without a second thought. And hackers know this.

Apps behaving badly

Hackers may create an app that looks legitimate but has malware installed in it.

Consider a traveller who has arrived in a new city and wants to download a local city guide application. These are readily advertised in tourist locations with a QR code. A hacker could stick his own QR code over the poster advertising the application and the unsuspecting tourist would then be directed to the hacker’s application that looks exactly the same as the original city guide application.

Once a user has downloaded what he thinks is an app to help him find interesting city information, he will be oblivious to the fact that a hacker is monitoring his every move. And because he gave the app permission to access many parts of his phone (including photos, camera, microphone, GPS location, etc), it is possible for the hacker to view this information as well as send screen captures of whatever is displayed on the screen, which can put company information at risk even though a secure container may be used to store this information.

Multi-layered security

Just as we protect our houses with security bars, electric fencing, alarm systems, beams and guard dogs, companies also need a multi-layered security approach, so that if a hacker breaches one system, there’s a good chance he’ll be tripped up by another.

While anti-virus solutions are good at blocking known malware, they are less effective against unknown malware. Hackers can also turn known malware into unknown malware in minutes using freely available online modification tools. Security should therefore be bolstered by sandboxing and other security monitoring tools.

Once an app bypasses the anti-virus system, a sandboxing solution will emulate how the app will perform if a user were to open it and will either alert the user if it is malicious or prevent the user from downloading it.

The next level of control involves monitoring the app for suspicious behaviour once it does execute, for example, if the device’s camera still records even though it is turned off. The software will either alert the user to the suspicious behaviour or quarantine the app for further investigation.

It’s tempting to agree to download an app in exchange for 25% off a shopping cart, but users should exercise caution and investigate not only the link they are being directed to but also the information the app asks to access before installing it. It’s safer to go directly to the retailer’s website and follow the download links, or to download the verified app from an app store, than to blindly trust a link in an email or SMS.

Businesses should assume that consumers are not protecting their devices or following due diligence when downloading apps and should implement multi-layered security systems that make it difficult for malicious apps to enter the network.

Hackers will continue to prey on network vulnerabilities and human error to steal information. As long as we stay one step ahead, we can afford to relax this festive season knowing our information is secure.

* Doros Hadjizenonos, Country Manager of Check Point South Africa

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Now IBM’s Watson joins IoT revolution in agriculture

Global expansion of the Watson Decision Platform taps into AI, weather and IoT data to boost production

IBM has announced the global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI technology tailored for new crops and specific regions to help feed a growing population. For the first time, IBM is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase in arable land [1]. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

Roric Paulman, owner/operator of Paulman Farms in Southwest Nebraska, said: “As a farmer, the wild card is always weather. IBM overlays weather details with my own data and historical information to help me apply, verify, and make decisions. For example, our farm is in a highly restricted water basin, so the ability to better anticipate rain not only saves me money but also helps me save precious natural resources.”

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in the Africa, U.S. Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as new markets across Europe and Australia.

Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions at IBM, said: “These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment. Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analysed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.” 

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036 [2]. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers. The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with start up Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Company data, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops. IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.

[1] The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision”

[2] Business Insider Intelligence, 2016 report: https://www.businessinsider.com/internet-of-things-smart-agriculture-2016-10


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What if Amazon used AI to take on factories?

By ANTONY BOURNE, IFS Global Industry Director for Manufacturing

Amazon recently announced record profits of $3.03bn, breaking its own record for the third consecutive time. However, Amazon appears to be at a crossroads as to where it heads next. Beyond pouring additional energy into Amazon Prime, many have wondered whether the company may decide to enter an entirely new sector such as manufacturing to drive future growth, after all, it seems a logical step for the company with its finger in so many pies.

At this point, it is unclear whether Amazon would truly ‘get its hands dirty’ by manufacturing its own products on a grand scale. But what if it did? It’s worth exploring this reality. What if Amazon did decide to move into manufacturing, a sector dominated by traditional firms and one that is yet to see an explosive tech rival enter? After all, many similarly positioned tech giants have stuck to providing data analytics services or consulting to these firms rather than genuinely engaging with and analysing manufacturing techniques directly.

If Amazon did factories

If Amazon decided to take a step into manufacturing, it is likely that they could use the Echo range as a template of what AI can achieve. In recent years,Amazon gained expertise on the way to designing its Echo home speaker range that features Alexa, an artificial intelligence and IoT-based digital assistant.Amazon could replicate a similar form with the deployment of AI and Industrial IoT (IIoT) to create an autonomously-run smart manufacturing plant. Such a plant could feature IIoT sensors to enable the machinery to be run remotely and self-aware; managing external inputs and outputs such as supply deliveries and the shipping of finished goods. Just-in-time logistics would remove the need for warehousing while other machines could be placed in charge of maintenance using AI and remote access. Through this, Amazon could radically reduce the need for human labour and interaction in manufacturing as the use of AI, IIoT and data analytics will leave only the human role for monitoring and strategic evaluation. Amazon has been using autonomous robots in their logistics and distribution centres since 2017. As demonstrated with the Echo range, this technology is available now, with the full capabilities of Blockchain and 5G soon to be realised and allowing an exponentially-increased amount of data to be received, processed and communicated.

Manufacturing with knowledge

Theorising what Amazon’s manufacturing debut would look like provides a stark learning opportunity for traditional manufacturers. After all, wheneverAmazon has entered the fray in other traditional industries such as retail and logistics, the sector has never remained the same again. The key takeaway for manufacturers is that now is the time to start leveraging the sort of technologies and approaches to data management that Amazon is already doing in its current operations. When thinking about how to implement AI and new technologies in existing environments, specific end-business goals and targets must be considered, or else the end result will fail to live up to the most optimistic of expectations. As with any target and goal, the more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results. Once specific targets and deliverables have been considered, the resources and methods of implementation must also be considered. As Amazon did with early automation of their distribution and logistics centres, manufacturers need to implement change gradually and be focused on achieving small and incremental results that will generate wider momentum and the appetite to lead more expansive changes.

In implementing newer technologies, manufacturers need to bear in mind two fundamental aspects of implementation: software and hardware solutions. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, which is increasingly bolstered by AI, will enable manufacturers to leverage the data from connected IoT devices, sensors, and automated systems from the factory floor and the wider business. ERP software will be the key to making strategic decisions and executing routine operational tasks more efficiently. This will allow manufacturers to keep on top of trends and deliver real-time forecasting and spot any potential problems before they impact the wider business.

As for the hardware, stock management drones and sensor-embedded hardware will be the eyes through which manufacturers view the impact emerging technologies bring to their operations. Unlike manual stock audits and counting, drones with AI capabilities can monitor stock intelligently around production so that operations are not disrupted or halted. Manufacturers will be able to see what is working, what is going wrong, and where there is potential for further improvement and change.

Knowledge for manufacturing

For many traditional manufacturers, they may see Amazon as a looming threat, and smart-factory technologies such as AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a far off utopia. However, 2019 presents a perfect opportunity for manufacturers themselves to really determine how the tech giants and emerging technologies will affect the industry. Technologies such as AI and IoT are available today; and the full benefits of these technologies will only deepen as they are implemented alongside the maturing of other emerging technologies such as 5G and Blockchain in the next 3-5 years. Manufacturers need to analyse the needs which these technologies can address and produce a proper plan on how to gradually implement these technologies to address specific targets and deliverables. AI-based software and hardware solutions will fundamentally revolutionise manufacturing, yet for 2019, manufacturers just have to be willing to make the first steps in modernisation.

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