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Steps forward

 

STEPS FORWARD: Math geniuses strive to make a pivotal advance — by obfuscating software code

By Byron V. Acohido

Most of time we take for granted the degree to which fundamental components of civilization are steeped in mathematics.

Everything from science and engineering to poetry and music rely on numeric calculations. Albert Einstein once observed that “pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”

Related: How Multi Party Computation is disrupting encryption

An accomplished violinist, Einstein, no doubt, appreciated the symmetry of his metaphor. He was keenly aware of how an expressive Haydn symphony applied math principles in a musical context in much the same way has he did in deriving breakthrough physics theorems.

Math once more is being conjured to help civilization make a great leap forward. Digital technology, like music, is all about math. We’ve come a long way leveraging algorithms to deliver an amazing array of digital services over the past 30 years; yet so much more is possible.

Math is the linchpin to innovations that can dramatically improve the lives of billions of people, perhaps even save the planet. However, a quintessential math conundrum, is, for the moment, holding these anticipated advancements in check. The math community refers to this bottleneck as “indistinguishability obfuscation,” or iO.

Our top math geniuses point to iO as a cornerstone needed to unleash the full potential of artificially intelligent (AI) programs running across highly complex and dynamic cloud platforms, soon to be powered by quantum computers. Simply put, iO must be achieved in order to preserve privacy and security while tapping into the next generation of IT infrastructure.

I recently had the chance to discuss iO with Dr. Tatsuaki Okamoto, director of NTT Research’s Cryptography and Information Security (CIS) Lab, and Dr. Amit Sahai, professor of computer science at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and director of UCLA Center for Encrypted Functionalities (CEF). NTT Research sponsored research led by Sahai that recently resulted in a achieving an important iO milestone.

SHARED INTEL: Coming soon — ‘passwordless authentication’ as a de facto security practice

By Byron V. Acohido

As a tradeoff for enjoying our digital lives, we’ve learned to live with password overload and even tolerate two-factor authentication.

But now, at long last, we’re on the brink of eliminating passwords altogether, once and for all.

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A confluence of technical and social developments points to username-and-password logons becoming obsolete over the next few years. What’s more, this shift could very well kick into high gear as part of the solidifying of post Covid-19 business practices and online habits.

I had a chance to discuss this seminal transition with George Avetisov, co-founder and chief executive officer of HYPR, a Manhattan-based supplier of advanced authentication technologies. For a full drill down on our eye-opening conversation, please give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are a few big takeaways.

Password tradeoffs 

Passwords have always been a big pain. They must be convoluted to be any good, which means they’re difficult to remember, especially since the average person has to juggle passwords to access dozens of online accounts. From a business perspective, managing and resetting passwords chews up scarce resources, and yet even with the best possible maintenance passwords are trivial to hack.

For most of the Internet era, we’ve learned to live with these tradeoffs. However, in the last couple of years the harm wrought by the abuse of passwords has spiked exponentially. The reason: credential stuffing. This is a type of advanced, brute-force hacking that leverages automation.

By deploying botnets pre-loaded with stolen data, credential stuffing gangs are able to insert stolen usernames and passwords into web page forms, at scale, until they gain access to a valuable account. Credential stuffing has enabled criminal hacking rings to turbo-charge their malware spreading and account hijacking campaigns. And when Covid-19 hit, these attackers opportunistically pivoted to plundering Covid-19 relief funds at an ungodly scale.

GUEST ESSAY: ‘CyberXchange’ presents a much-needed platform for cybersecurity purchases

By Armistead Whitney

There is no shortage of innovative cybersecurity tools and services that can help companies do a much better job of defending their networks.

Related: Welcome to the CyberXchange Marketplace

In the U.S. alone, in fact, there are more than 5,000 cybersecurity vendors. For organizations looking to improve their security posture, this is causing confusion and vendor fatigue, especially for companies that don’t have a full time Chief Information Security Officer.

The vendors are well-intentioned. They are responding to a trend of companies moving to meet rising compliance requirements, such as PCI-DSS and GDPR. Senior management is now  focused on embracing well-vetted best practices such as those outlined in FFIEC and SOC 2, and many more. According to a recent study by PwC, 91% of all companies are following cybersecurity frameworks, like these, as they build and implement their cybersecurity programs.

All of this activity has put a strain on how companies buy and sell cybersecurity solutions. Consider that PCI-DSS alone has over 250 complex requirements that include things like endpoint protection, password management, anti-virus, border security, data recovery and awareness training.

Traditional channels for choosing the right security solutions are proving to be increasingly ineffective. This includes searching through hundreds of companies on Google, attending trade shows and conferences (not possible today with COVID), or dealing with constant cold calls and cold emails from security company sales reps.

NEW TECH: Trend Micro flattens cyber risks — from software development to deployment

By Byron V. Acohido

Long before this awful pandemic hit us, cloud migration had attained strong momentum in the corporate sector. As Covid19 rages on, thousands of large to mid-sized enterprises are now slamming pedal to the metal on projects to switch over to cloud-based IT infrastructure.

A typical example is a Seattle-based computer appliance supplier that had less than 10 percent of its 5,000 employees set up to work remotely prior to the pandemic. Seattle reported the first Covid19 fatality in the U.S., and Washington was among the first states to issue shelter at home orders. Overnight, this supplier was forced to make the switch to 90 percent of its employees working from home.

As jarring as this abrupt shift to remote work has been for countless companies, government agencies and educational institutions, it has conversely been a huge boon for cyber criminals. The Internet from its inception has presented a wide open attack vector to threat actors. Covid19 has upgraded the Internet — from the criminals’ point of view — to a picture-perfect environment for phishing, scamming and deep network intrusions. Thus the urgency for organizations to put all excuses aside and embrace stricter cyber hygiene practices could not be any higher.

It’s a very good thing that the cybersecurity industry has been innovating apace, as well. Cybersecurity technology is far more advanced today than it was five years ago, or even two years ago.

MY TAKE: Even Google CEO Sundar Pichai agrees that it is imperative to embed ethics into AI

By Byron V. Acohido

It took a global pandemic and the death of George Floyd to put deep-seated social inequities, especially systemic racism, front and center for intense public debate.

Related: Will ‘blockchain’ lead to more equitable wealth distribution?

We may or may not be on the cusp of a redressing social injustice by reordering our legacy political and economic systems. Only time will tell. Either way, a singular piece of technology – artificial intelligence (AI) — is destined to profoundly influence which way we go from here.

This is not just my casual observation. Those in power fully recognize how AI can be leveraged to preserve status-quo political and economic systems, with all of its built-in flaws, more or less intact.

Conversely, consumer advocates and diversity experts can see how AI could be utilized to redistribute political power more equitably, and in doing so, recalibrate society – including blunting systemic racism.

In late January, as COVID-19 was beginning to spread, the most powerful people on the planet flew to Davos, Switzerland to attend the 50th annual World Economic Forum. AI was prominent on their agenda. These heads of state and captains of industry even coined a buzz phrase, “stakeholder capitalism,” to acknowledge the need to take into account the interests of the economically disadvantaged and politically powerless citizens of the world as they bull ahead with commercial and political uses of AI.“AI is one of the most profound things we’re working on as humanity,” Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent holding company, told Bloomberg News in Davos. “It’s more profound than fire or electricity.”

NEW TECH: Cequence Security’s new ‘API Sentinel’ helps identify, mitigate API exposures

By Byron V. Acohido

Application Programming Interfaces – APIs. Without them digital transformation would never have gotten off the ground.

Related: Defending botnet-driven business logic hacks

APIs made possible the astounding cloud, mobile and IoT services we have today. This happened, at a fundamental level, by freeing up software developers to innovate on the fly. APIs have exploded in enterprise use over the past several years.

However, API deployments have scaled so high and so fast that many companies don’t know how many APIs they have, which types they’re using and how susceptible their APIs might be to being compromised.

Cequence Security, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based application security vendor, today is launching a new solution, called API Sentinel, designed to help companies jump in and start proactively mitigating API risks, without necessarily having to slow down their innovation steam engine. I had the chance to discuss this with Matt Keil, Cequence’s director of product marketing. For a full drill down, please give the accompanying podcast a listen. Here are key takeaways from our conversation:

API 101

Digital transformation took off when companies discovered that instead of developing monolithic applications that were updated annually – at best – they could tap into the skill and creativity of their developers. This was possible because APIs – the conduits that enable two software applications to exchange information – are open and decentralized, exactly like the Internet.

MY TAKE: COVID-19’s silver lining could turn out to be more rapid, wide adoption of cyber hygiene

By Byron V. Acohido

Long before COVID-19, some notable behind-the-scenes forces were in motion to elevate cybersecurity to a much higher level.

Related: How the Middle East has advanced mobile security regulations

Over the past couple of decades, meaningful initiatives to improve online privacy and security, for both companies and consumers, incrementally gained traction in the tech sector and among key regulatory agencies across Europe, the Middle East and North America. These developments would have, over the next decade or so, steadily and materially reduced society’s general exposure to cybercrime and online privacy abuses.

Then COVID-19 came along and obliterated societal norms and standard business practices. A sweeping overhaul of the status quo – foreshadowed by the sudden and acute shift to a predominantly work-from-home workforce – lies ahead.

One thing is certain, as this global reset plays out, cyber criminals will seize upon fresh opportunities to breach company and home networks, and to steal, defraud and disrupt, which they’ve already commenced doing.

Yet there are a few threads of a silver lining I’d like to point out. It is possible, if not probable, that we are about to witness an accelerated rate of adoption of cyber hygiene best practices, as well as more intensive use of leading-edge security tools and services. And this positive upswing could be reinforced by stricter adherence to, not just the letter, but the spirit of data security laws already on the books in several nations.

There is an urgency in the air to do the right thing. Several key variables happen to be tilting in an advantageous direction. Here’s a primer about how cyber hygiene best practices – and supporting security tools and services – could gain significant steam in the months ahead, thanks to COVID-19.