Why 2020 Will Be the Year Artificial Intelligence Stops Being Optional for Security

January 29, 2020
| |
4 min read

Artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t new. What is new is the growing ubiquity of AI in large organizations. In fact, by the end of this year, I believe nearly every type of large organization will find AI-based cybersecurity tools indispensable.

Artificial intelligence is many things to many people. One fairly neutral definition is that it’s a branch of computer science that focuses on intelligent behavior, such as learning and problem solving. Now that cybersecurity AI is mainstream, it’s time to stop treating AI like some kind of magic pixie dust that solves every problem and start understanding its everyday necessity in the new cybersecurity landscape. 2020 is the year large organizations will come to rely on AI for security.

AI isn’t magic, but for many specific use cases, the right tool for the job will increasingly involve AI. Here are six reasons why that’s the case.

1. Cybercrime Is Growing More Expensive

The monetary calculation every organization must make is the cost of security tools, programs and resources on one hand versus the cost of failing to secure vital assets on the other. That calculation is becoming easier as the potential cost of data breaches grows. And these costs aren’t stemming from the cleanup operation alone; they may also include damage to the brand, drops in stock prices and loss of productivity.

The average total cost of a data breach is now $3.92 million, according to the 2019 Cost of a Data Breach Report. That’s an increase of nearly 12 percent since 2014. The rising costs are also global, as Juniper Research predicts that the business costs of data breaches will exceed $5 trillion per year by 2024, with regulatory fines included.

These rising costs are partly due to the fact that malware is growing more destructive. Ransomware, for example, is moving beyond preventing file access and toward going after critical files and even master boot records.

Fortunately, AI can help security operations centers (SOCs) deal with these rising risks and costs. Indeed, the Cost of a Data Breach Report found that cybersecurity AI can decrease average costs by $230,000.

2. State-Sponsored Attacks Are on the Rise

The percentage of state-sponsored cyberattacks against organizations of all kinds is also growing. In 2019, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of breaches analyzed by Verizon were identified as having been funded or otherwise supported by nation-states or state-sponsored actors — up from 12 percent in the previous year. This is concerning because state-sponsored attacks tend to be far more capable than garden-variety cybercrime attacks, and detecting and containing these threats often requires AI assistance.

3. Attackers Are Using AI

An arms race between adversarial AI and defensive AI is coming. That’s just another way of saying that cybercriminals are coming at organizations with AI-based methods sold on the dark web to avoid setting off intrusion alarms and defeat authentication measures. So-called polymorphic malware and metamorphic malware change and adapt to avoid detection, with the latter making more drastic and hard-to-detect changes with its code.

Even social engineering is getting the artificial intelligence treatment. We’ve already seen deepfake audio attacks where AI-generated voices impersonating three CEOs were used against three different companies. Deepfake audio and video simulations are created using generative adversarial network (GAN) technologies, where two neural networks train each other (one learning to create fake data and the other learning to judge its quality) until the first can create convincing simulations.

GAN technology can, in theory and in practice, be used to generate all kinds of fake data, including fingerprints and other biometric data. Some security experts predict that future iterations of malware will use AI to determine whether they are in a sandbox or not. Sandbox-evading malware would naturally be harder to detect using traditional methods.

Cybercriminals could also use AI to find new targets, especially internet of things (IoT) targets. This may contribute to more attacks against warehouses, factory equipment and office equipment. Accordingly, the best defense against AI-enhanced attacks of all kinds is cybersecurity AI.

4. Security Experts Are Expensive and Rare

Large organizations are suffering from a chronic expertise shortage in the cybersecurity field, and this shortage will continue unless things change. To that end, AI-based tools can enable enterprises to do more with the limited human resources already present in-house.

5. Security Is Growing More Complex

The Accenture Security Index found that more than 70 percent of organizations worldwide struggle to identify what their high-value assets are. AI can be a powerful tool for identifying these assets for protection.

The quantity of data that has to be sifted through to identify threats is vast and growing. Fortunately, machine learning is well-suited to processing huge data sets and eliminating false positives.

In addition, rapid in-house software development may be creating many new vulnerabilities, but AI can find errors in code far more quickly than humans. To embrace rapid application development (RAD) requires the use of AI for bug fixing.

These are just two examples of how growing complexity can inform and demand the adoption of AI-based tools in an enterprise.

6. Productivity and Usability Can’t Be Sacrificed for Security

There has always been tension between the need for better security and the need for higher productivity. The most usable systems are not secure, and the most secure systems are often unusable. Striking the right balance between the two is vital, but achieving this balance is becoming more difficult as attack methods grow more aggressive.

AI will likely come into your organization through the evolution of basic security practices. For instance, consider the standard security practice of authenticating employee and customer identities. As cybercriminals get better at spoofing users, stealing passwords and so on, organizations will be more incentivized to embrace advanced authentication technologies, such as AI-based facial recognition, gait recognition, voice recognition, keystroke dynamics and other biometrics.

The 2019 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report found that 81 percent of hacking-related breaches involved weak or stolen passwords. To counteract these attacks, sophisticated AI-based tools that enhance authentication can be leveraged. For example, AI tools that continuously estimate risk levels whenever employees or customers access resources from the organization could prompt identification systems to require two-factor authentication when the AI component detects suspicious or risky behavior.

A big part of the solution going forward is leveraging both AI and biometrics to enable greater security without overburdening employees and customers.

Artificial Intelligence? You’re Soaking In It

One of the biggest reasons why employing AI will be so critical this year is that doing so will likely be unavoidable. AI is being built into security tools and services of all kinds, so it’s time to change our thinking around AI’s role in enterprise security. Where it was once an exotic option, it is quickly becoming a mainstream necessity. How will you use AI to protect your organization?

Mike Elgan

I write a popular weekly column for Computerworld, contribute news analysis pieces for Fast Company, and also write special features, columns and think piece...
read more