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Threat hunters emerge from the shadows

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As a new generation of cyber threats emerges, a new breed of cyber security defenders is emerging. They don’t wait for enemies to strike, but go looking for them, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Meet Alex and Andy. They are young, clean-cut and casually dressed men who may not draw a second glance if you bump into them in public. Behind closed doors, however, they are the information age’s equivalent of fearsome warriors. They are called threat hunters.

No, they are not super-heroes. Although they are heroes to some organisations.

Five years ago, the job description didn’t even exist. Back then, security experts waited for the hackers to strike, then rushed around repairing the damage, fixing the holes and, just maybe, chasing down the bad guys.

But that’s not good enough today. As hackers become more sophisticated in both their methods and their tools, and the stakes get higher in lost data and massive financial fraud, the security industry also has to evolve.

Alex and Andy represent the cutting edge of this evolution. In an age of heavy reliance on algorithms and artificial intelligence to predict and block standard threats, it turns out that human intuition is far more powerful in spotting unusual and new kinds of attack.

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They work in Johannesburg for a global cyber security consultancy called MWR InfoSecurity, which develops tailored security solutiosn for clients that range from governments to corporations.

Their boss, Jacques Louw, MWR director and head of Cyber Defence, describes threat hunting as a technique that “focuses on the human elements in attack detection”. In this environment, he says, “one cannot have automated threat hunting”.

He uses the evolution of physical home security as an analogy for the growing need for a new kind of approach.

“We’ve seen in the last decade or so that, ultimately, you cannot prevent attackers from climbing over your walls no matter how high you build them; they always seem to find a higher ladder. So the focus has really been towards detection and response for when they do manage to get over. In this regard, detection is critical – if you don’t see the intruder, then the armed response never arrives, whereas if you have too many false alarms, the armed response will stop showing up.”

Add the fact that organised crime syndicates are now targeting major corporations, and state sponsored teams are going after national governments, the challenge becomes even more complex. Enter a new kind of detection.

“Detecting attacks is not a new idea,” says Louw. “In fact it’s been around for many years, comprising automated systems like anti-virus and intrusion detection or prevention systems. Think of them as anti-virus for a network traffic.

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“Such systems were originally built to deal with viruses or malicious software or malware that was self-propagating – which means it spreads on its own in an automated way. After the malware is created, it acts automatically, executing the tasks it was initially programmed to do.

“Traditional anti-virus works by analysing a piece of malware, creating a signature for it and adding it to a database – similar to that of a book of criminal records. The anti-virus then checks each new program on a system against these records, and alerts you when it finds one with features similar to that of one of the records.

“Unfortunately, the first problem here is that you need to discover a piece of malware before you can create a signature for it, so it has to succeed in attacking someone first before a signature can exist. Moreover, it is quite easy for a programmer to change what the malware looks like – while still having the malware do the same thing. So changing features, but not behaviour.”

A key reason traditional security is no longer enough is that the threat has evolved from the equivalent of a property invasion to something far more elaborate.

Louw compares a modern corporate network to a large city, with multiple roads in and out and many thousands of everyday people performing many different activities across the city.

“In this analogy, a signature-based system is similar to a simplistic robot that walks around the city, trying to match faces of people he sees to a photo in the mugshot book. In contrast, threat hunting is like a human policeman that can actually spot bad behaviour, not because each bad activity has been strictly defined and given to him on a long list, but rather because he can use his experience, knowledge of the law and judgement to make a call on some behaviour that has never been seen before.”

An example is a form of malware that operates not like a virus spreading through the system, but like a hole in the system. Appropriately called RATS, for Remote Access Trojans, these are “exploits” that can easily be altered slightly to bypass anti-virus every time they are used.

“The attacker only needs to find a single entry-point to compromise an organisation, so the defender must defend all systems perfectly all the time to be secure,” says Louw. This concept is known in security as “the defender’s dilemma”
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“In threat hunting, one of the ways we are responding to this dilemma is by using a judo-like technique called the anomaly analysis, where we can turn the attackers greatest advantage into a disadvantage. Instead of looking for something bad on a large network of systems, we look for something that is different and investigate it accordingly.

“If the attacker attacks a system on the network, that system will appear different to all of the other systems in some way – allowing the attack to be detected even if we don’t have a signature for exactly what the attacker is doing.  This may sound simple, but you can easily recognise that certain differences are more interesting than others and that is where human skill comes into play.

“You can have automated systems gathering data from all systems, collecting network traffic and pulling in logs from systems. Ultimately, however, you need a human to drive the analysis.”

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Prepare your cam to capture the Blood Moon

On 27 July 2018, South Africans can witness a total lunar eclipse, as the earth’s shadow completely covers the moon.

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Also known as a blood or red moon, a total lunar eclipse is the most dramatic of all lunar eclipses and presents an exciting photographic opportunity for any aspiring photographer or would-be astronomers.

“A lunar eclipse is a rare cosmic sight. For centuries these events have inspired wonder, interest and sometimes fear amongst observers. Of course, if you are lucky to be around when one occurs, you would want to capture it all on camera,” says Dana Eitzen, Corporate and Marketing Communications Executive at Canon South Africa.

Canon ambassador and acclaimed landscape photographer David Noton has provided his top tips to keep in mind when photographing this occasion.   In South Africa, the eclipse will be visible from about 19h14 on Friday, 27 July until 01h28 on the Saturday morning. The lunar eclipse will see the light from the sun blocked by the earth as it passes in front of the moon. The moon will turn red because of an effect known as Rayleigh Scattering, where bands of green and violet light become filtered through the atmosphere.

A partial eclipse will begin at 20h24 when the moon will start to turn red. The total eclipse begins at about 21h30 when the moon is completely red. The eclipse reaches its maximum at 22h21 when the moon is closest to the centre of the shadow.

David Noton advises:

  1. Download the right apps to be in-the-know

The sun’s position in the sky at any given time of day varies massively with latitude and season. That is not the case with the moon as its passage through the heavens is governed by its complex elliptical orbit of the earth. That orbit results in monthly, rather than seasonal variations, as the moon moves through its lunar cycle. The result is big differences in the timing of its appearance and its trajectory through the sky. Luckily, we no longer need to rely on weight tables to consult the behaviour of the moon, we can simply download an app on to our phone. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is useful for giving moonrise and moonset times, bearings and phases; while the Photopills app gives comprehensive information on the position of the moon in our sky.  Armed with these two apps, I’m planning to shoot the Blood Moon rising in Dorset, England. I’m aiming to capture the moon within the first fifteen minutes of moonrise so I can catch it low in the sky and juxtapose it against an object on the horizon line for scale – this could be as simple as a tree on a hill.

 

  1. Invest in a lens with optimal zoom  

On the 27th July, one of the key challenges we’ll face is shooting the moon large in the frame so we can see every crater on the asteroid pockmarked surface. It’s a task normally reserved for astronomers with super powerful telescopes, but if you’ve got a long telephoto lens on a full frame DSLR with around 600 mm of focal length, it can be done, depending on the composition. I will be using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with an EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Ext. 1.4 x lens.

  1. Use a tripod to capture the intimate details

As you frame up your shot, one thing will become immediately apparent; lunar tracking is incredibly challenging as the moon moves through the sky surprisingly quickly. As you’ll be using a long lens for this shoot, it’s important to invest in a sturdy tripod to help capture the best possible image. Although it will be tempting to take the shot by hand, it’s important to remember that your subject is over 384,000km away from you and even with a high shutter speed, the slightest of movements will become exaggerated.

  1. Integrate the moon into your landscape

Whilst images of the moon large in the frame can be beautifully detailed, they are essentially astronomical in their appeal. Personally, I’m far more drawn to using the lunar allure as an element in my landscapes, or using the moonlight as a light source. The latter is difficult, as the amount of light the moon reflects is tiny, whilst the lunar surface is so bright by comparison. Up to now, night photography meant long, long exposures but with cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV now capable of astonishing low light performance, a whole new nocturnal world of opportunities has been opened to photographers.

  1. Master the shutter speed for your subject 

The most evocative and genuine use of the moon in landscape portraits results from situations when the light on the moon balances with the twilight in the surrounding sky. Such images have a subtle appeal, mood and believability.  By definition, any scene incorporating a medium or wide-angle view is going to render the moon as a tiny pin prick of light, but its presence will still be felt. Our eyes naturally gravitate to it, however insignificant it may seem. Of course, the issue of shutter speed is always there; too slow an exposure and all we’ll see is an unsightly lunar streak, even with a wide-angle lens.

 

On a clear night, mastering the shutter speed of your camera is integral to capturing the moon – exposing at 1/250 sec @ f8 ISO 100 (depending on focal length) is what you’ll need to stop the motion from blurring and if you are to get the technique right, with the high quality of cameras such as the Canon EOS 5DS R, you might even be able to see the twelve cameras that were left up there by NASA in the 60’s!

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How Africa can embrace AI

Currently, no African country is among the top 10 countries expected to benefit most from AI and automation. But, the continent has the potential to catch up with the rest of world if we act fast, says ZOAIB HOOSEN, Microsoft Managing Director.

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To play catch up, we must take advantage of our best and most powerful resource – our human capital. According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than 60 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 25.

These are the people who are poised to create a future where humans and AI can work together for the good of society. In fact, the most recent WEF Global Shapers survey found that almost 80 percent of youth believe technology like AI is creating jobs rather than destroying them.

Staying ahead of the trends to stay employed

AI developments are expected to impact existing jobs, as AI can replicate certain activities at greater speed and scale. In some areas, AI could learn faster than humans, if not yet as deeply.

According to Gartner, while AI will improve the productivity of many jobs and create millions more new positions, it could impact many others. The simpler and less creative the job, the earlier, a bot for example, could replace it.

It’s important to stay ahead of the trends and find opportunities to expand our knowledge and skills while learning how to work more closely and symbiotically with technology.

Another global study by Accenture, found that the adoption of AI will create several new job categories requiring important and yet surprising skills. These include trainers, who are tasked with teaching AI systems how to perform; explainers, who bridge the gap between technologist and business leader; and sustainers, who ensure that AI systems are operating as designed.

It’s clear that successfully integrating human intelligence with AI, so they co-exist in a two-way learning relationship, will become more critical than ever.

Combining STEM with the arts

Young people have a leg up on those already in the working world because they can easily develop the necessary skills for these new roles. It’s therefore essential that our education system constantly evolves to equip youth with the right skills and way of thinking to be successful in jobs that may not even exist yet.

As the division of tasks between man and machine changes, we must re-evaluate the type of knowledge and skills imparted to future generations.

For example, technical skills will be required to design and implement AI systems, but interpersonal skills, creativity and emotional intelligence will also become crucial in giving humans an advantage over machines.

“At one level, AI will require that even more people specialise in digital skills and data science. But skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.” This is according to Microsoft president, Brad Smith, and EVP of AI and research, Harry Shum, who recently authored the book “The Future Computed”, which primarily deals with AI and its role in society.

Interestingly, institutions like Stanford University are already implementing this forward-thinking approach. The university offers a programme called CS+X, which integrates its computer science degree with humanities degrees, resulting in a Bachelor of Arts and Science qualification.

Revisiting laws and regulation

For this type of evolution to happen, the onus is on policy makers to revisit current laws and even bring in new regulations. Policy makers need to identify the groups most at risk of losing their jobs and create strategies to reintegrate them into the economy.

Simultaneously, though AI could be hugely beneficial in areas such as curbing poor access to healthcare and improving diagnoses for example, physicians may avoid using this technology for fear of malpractice. To avoid this, we need regulation that closes the gap between the pace of technological change and that of regulatory response. It will also become essential to develop a code of ethics for this new ecosystem.

Preparing for the future

With the recent convergence of a transformative set of technologies, economies are entering a period in which AI has the potential overcome physical limitations and open up new sources of value and growth.

To avoid missing out on this opportunity, policy makers and business leaders must prepare for, and work toward, a future with AI. We must do so not with the idea that AI is simply another productivity enhancer. Rather, we must see AI as the tool that can transform our thinking about how growth is created.

It comes down to a choice of our people and economies being part of the technological disruption, or being left behind.

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