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Big Tech Is Battling Cyberthreats With AI

By Danny Vena - Updated Jun 22, 2017 at 4:00PM

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As cybercriminals become more sophisticated in their attacks, AI is providing Big Tech with new tools in the ongoing battle. Here's how.

Cybercrime is a worldwide epidemic, and frequent headlines attest to the need for novel solutions. Research firm Cybersecurity Ventures estimates that the global cost of cybercrime will reach $6 trillion annually by 2021, double the $3 trillion cost in 2015. It further reports that spending on products and services to defend against cybercrime will exceed $1 trillion over the next five years. With the number of hacks and infiltrations on the rise, there will be a growing shortage of experts to fill cybersecurity positions that will result in 3.5 million open positions in the field by 2021. 

The most recent example of a widespread threat is the ransomware WannaCry, which spread to 150 countries and over 200,000 organizations. Infected computers were encrypted while hackers demanded payments from users for the release of their data. 

Experts are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence (AI) in the fight against cybercrime for its ability to analyze data more quickly than its human counterparts and potentially block malicious code before it gains access or causes significant damage. Microsoft Corporation (MSFT 1.70%) just joined a growing number of tech companies that are banking on AI to bridge the gap in the battle for the digital domain.

Word map centered on the words cybersecurity

Hexadite can respond to cyberthreats in minutes. Image source: Pixabay.

Time is of the essence

Microsoft has acquired cybersecurity start-up Hexadite, which specializes in the use of AI to identify and respond to cyberattacks. This acquisition will allow the company to expand its existing capabilities and portfolio of security products. Most cyberattacks are the result of sophisticated algorithms running protocols to identify vulnerabilities and exploit them. Hexadite claims that its AI-based solution reduces the time necessary to respond to cyberincidents by 95%. Its system can launch multiple "probes" and identify breaches in real time, allowing either a human or automated response to begin within minutes. 

Microsoft has acquired a number of start-ups in recent years in an effort to increase the security of its Azure cloud-computing services. In 2014, Microsoft picked up enterprise-security company Aorato, which uses machine learning to create a behavior-monitoring firewall to quickly identify anomalies in data networks. By continuously reviewing and updating its interpretation of normal user behavior, the system can detect unusual or suspicious activity within a company's network before threats are realized. This latest move by the software giant is part of a broader trend that's changing the way companies combat cyberincursions.

Guarding the valuables

E-commerce giant Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN 2.07%) acquired AI-based cybersecurity company Harvest.ai, which uses analytics to spot unusual behavior by users and within key business systems. The system determines the importance of, and assigns values to, critical documents, data, and source code to detect and eliminate data breaches. The company's flagship MACIE system provides real-time monitoring and detects unauthorized access to prevent targeted attacks and data leaks. It is thought that Amazon used Harvest.ai to strengthen the security of its Amazon Web Services cloud-computing service.

digital safety concept padlock in electronic environment.

Microsoft will roll out Hexadite to commercial Windows 10 customers. Image source: Getty Images.

Well read on cybersecurity

Tech giant International Business Machines Corporation (IBM 1.11%) embarked on a mission in mid-2016 to train its AI-based cognitive-computing system, Watson, in cybersecurity. The company partnered with a number of universities in a yearlong research project to gain access to data on previous security threats. By processing this data, Watson would be able to discover similar events based on the information contained in the volumes of security data. IBM later expanded the project to more than 40 organizations from a variety of industries to further Watson's capabilities in the area.

In early 2017, the company announced that after ingesting over 1 million security documents, Watson for Cyber Security would be available to its customers to enhance their cybersecurity proficiency. 

Sophisticated encryption 

Alphabet's (GOOG 2.36%) (GOOGL 2.39%) Google has been a pioneer in AI and has been at the forefront of numerous AI technologies, from autonomous driving to designing a chip that may be the future of AI systems. One of the more intriguing developments in its AI research may have broad implications in the field of cybersecurity.

Google detailed in a research paper how two AI systems were tasked with communicating with each other, while preventing a third from discovering the content of their communications. The two systems, called Bob and Alice, were given a security key that was not provided to Eve, the third system. While they were not trained regarding coding, Bob and Alice were able to devise a sophisticated encryption protocol that stymied Eve. This could have practical applications for cybersecurity in the future. 

Fighting fire with fire

As cybercriminals and their techniques become more sophisticated, so, too, must the methods used to defend against them. Since complex algorithms are being used to perpetrate these attacks, it seems only fitting that artificially intelligent software systems be used to secure against the intrusions. While there is probably no silver bullet, each new advancement adds another weapon in the battle for cybersecurity.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. Danny Vena owns shares of Alphabet (A shares) and Amazon. Danny Vena has the following options: long January 2018 $640 calls on Alphabet (C shares) and short January 2018 $650 calls on Alphabet (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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