Attempts by hackers to bring down online systems and compromise valuable data are on the rise. Just last month, one of the largest distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks ever launched was responsible for making the internet unusable across large parts of the USA, and services at Twitter, Netflix and many other places were forced offline.
These attacks are sometimes carried out to steal data. By breaking the systems through hitting them with brute force traffic, they potentially make them more vulnerable to more targeted attacks. Sometimes they are carried out as a warning shot – a show of strength to let someone know that the attacker is serious and has cyber-firepower at their fingertips.
By all estimates, attacks of this type as well as many other forms of cyber-attack are likely to continue to increase in size and frequency. Fortunately for the law-abiding, as online criminals get smarter, so do efforts made to protect against their unwanted intrusions and attempted theft.
Lately Big Data has been put to use in the ongoing battle to stay one step ahead of the hackers and malicious actors – who could be anyone from disgruntled customers to nation states. Today, advanced analytics and cutting edge technology such as machine learning are put to work on the vast streams of data available through networks such as the internet, and our connected machines.
The aim is to look for unusual patterns among the constant buzz of information that makes up an organization’s digital activities. Some of these technologies were first developed for military applications, and have now been spun out into industry. The most famous example probably being Palantir, which was initially funded by the CIA to provide analytics muscle in the war against terrorism. Today it provides Big Data-driven cybersecurity to big business and is valued at $20 billion. Services such as these are often considered a good investment, as businesses which lose data through breaches can face loss of consumer trust, public disclosure of commercially valuable information, and face large fines.
Transformation brings security challenges
Today, many businesses are attempting to undergo changes which will allow them to survive and thrive in an increasingly digital, online and automated world. With new infrastructures being hacked into place, it’s inevitable that attackers will find themselves presented with tempting new targets.
One example is the way in which it is becoming increasingly common for a company to move data – often valuable or personal – outside of its own walls and into the hands of a third party such as a cloud storage, or a software-as-a-service provider.
Oliver Newbury, CTO for BT Security, told me “What all this means from a security point of view is that things are becoming increasingly non-linear and hard to draw out on a page.
“And that’s better for the threat actors than it is for us … so we, as security professionals, need to continue to evolve and shift our approach so we can keep pace with the digital transformations that businesses need to drive. And I think Big Data is a key part of that approach.”
They key to starting to think about cyber defences is building up a broad picture of how that transformation is affecting an organization’s exposure to threats, according to Newbury.
“Often as your organizations shifts and transforms, you end up with a broad surface area and some weak points in your perimeter, which could enable people to sneak in. Then they can start to find your assets and exfiltrate them.
“So if you don’t have that ability to take data from across an organization and build that overall picture, you’re potentially missing intrusions that could lead to loss of sensitive data.”
BT also provides its own service, known as Assure Cyber, which takes a Big Data-driven approach using Pentaho towards assessing the security threats faced by an organization, detecting incoming attacks and preventing loss of data.
New angles of attack
The record breaking, internet-destroying attack I mentioned earlier was notable not just for its size. It was certainly big – directing a devastating 1.2 terabytes per second of traffic at the target computers in a successful attempt to make them crumble and go offline.
It was also an example of a growing trend of attacks launched not from clusters of hijacked desktop PCs, but from Internet of Things devices. A malicious piece of code was used to take control of devices – including cameras and smart TVs, by searching for them across networks, logging in using factory default passwords, and feeding them new instructions. By building a network of potentially around 100,000 of these compromised devices, the unknown hackers came closer to crashing the entire internet than anyone else has so far managed.
The struggle will probably go on forever – or for as long as there is technology and people who are inclined to steal and cause trouble. As security becomes tighter, hackers will become more devious, and, in a repeating pattern, security experts will step up their game.
But in the here-and-now, it’s clear that its more important than ever for organizations to be aware of the range of threats levelled towards them, and assess the risks posed by the data they are storing.
Bernard Marr is a best-selling author & keynote speaker. His newbook:’Big Data in Practice: How 45 Successful Companies Used Big Data Analytics to Deliver Extraordinary Results‘