SA enterprises can benefit from AI-driven cybersecurity

Issue 7 2023 AI & Data Analytics, Information Security

Steven Kenny.

South Africa leads the rest of Africa when it comes to cybercrime. In 2022, 230 million threats were detected in the country, surpassing Morocco in second place with 71 million. South Africa also had the highest targeted ransomware and business email compromise attempts and is home to the third-highest number of cybercrime victims worldwide at an annual cost of R2,2 billion.

Cybercrime is big business, and threat actors are deploying cutting-edge tools to carry out their attacks. Fortunately, cybersecurity is constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of individuals and organisations, and to counter the threats they face.

Enterprises have access to and leverage cutting-edge solutions to reinforce their security resilience. Artificial intelligence (AI), something that is influencing all spheres of business activity, can help secure enterprises’ growing attack surface area and identify and mitigate vulnerabilities without the need for additional human intervention. As with any business change, part of deploying AI-driven solutions is having a robust strategy in place, one that considers the long-term feasibility and requirements of those solutions.

Threats of escalating severity

For many threat actors, cybercrime is a business like any other. As a result, they are inclined to adopt the latest trends and use the latest technologies to carry out their attacks. The various features of AI and machine learning (ML) that enterprises are starting to explore are the same features criminals are misusing.

There are several examples of this. For instance, generative AI tools such as ChatGPT and Google’s Bard can provide criminals with marketing messages for phishing emails. AI automation tools can create automated interactions with a large pool of potential victims. Algorithms trained on personal data can be used to build profiles of victims and prioritised lists, minimising the resources needed while increasing the accuracy of attacks.

The misuse of AI goes beyond straightforward phishing attempts using ChatGPT. AI-powered malware can leverage advanced techniques to evade detection by security software and use metamorphic mechanisms to change operations based on their environment. Consider DeepLocker, an AI-powered malware developed by IBM research as an experiment. It conceals its intent until it reaches a specific victim, potentially infecting millions of systems without detection. It is critical that enterprises stay one step ahead of malicious innovation like this, and they can do this by properly integrating AI-powered systems and countermeasures into their security strategies.

First responders

Having AI-enabled security systems requires an overhaul of organisations’ inner security workings. In other words, given the technological, legal, and ethical implications of those systems, companies need to provide adequate training and education for their security teams and conduct due diligence with their respective IT suppliers and partners.

From there, the critical factor is data. AI programs can identify patterns, detect anomalies, and analyse vast amounts of data throughout an organisation’s network and infrastructure. This applies to infrastructure regardless of its scope and circumstance. Case in point: AI can detect vulnerability in hybrid or remote environments where systems are decentralised. These programmes serve as the ‘first responders’ in countering any malicious activity, and they help organisations assume a more proactive, forward-looking risk posture.

AI is also a force for reducing organisations’ security workloads. For example, AI-powered automated patching can track and patch important software in real time and minimise potential exposure to threat actors. Remember that businesses should not become over-reliant on these systems or leave them susceptible to data breaches. Organisations must implement solid policies and guidelines regarding data access, monitoring, and analytics to avoid this.

We need to embrace the future

According to Microsoft-IDC research, 39% of companies in South Africa plan to address security concerns by improving the automation of processes and integration of their technologies. This is a step in the right direction, but it is only the beginning for many organisations and their efforts to overhaul their security setups.

AI represents a turning point in how we approach security, among many other business functions. Its implementation may come with unanticipated consequences, but organisations must be prepared to adopt it, lest they fall behind their competitors or only see its value too far down the road.

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