In the Pegasus world, only the cyber-paranoid survive

A recent Bloomberg article talks of a company ‘where employees’ children have to sign nondisclosure agreements before attending company parties, with the only exception being kids who haven't yet learned to write. New employees spend two days in security classes, then three days setting up office PCs and passwords, and then spend a week to go over a 70-item checklist of recommended personal security measures, which includes installing alarms and surveillance cameras at home, and closing social networking accounts.’ They cannot identify themselves as employees of this company. Takeshi Chino is one of the few executives of this company, who is allowed to tell the world where he works, but ‘he can’t tell his wife the physical location of the office!’. No, this organisation is not the CIA, nor the fabled Cosa Nostra, or the Sicilian Mafia. It is San Francisco-based Payward Inc., which runs a $10bn cryptocurrency exchange called Kraken, and the extreme measures are to ensure fool-proof cybersecurity, especially against ransomware attacks (where hackers threaten to steal data or disrupt a company’s systems, until they are paid a ransom).

There seems to be a database breach, hacking attack or a ransomware attack almost every day. Some of them have been massive ones on well-known companies like Target and Maersk, and even here in India on Mobiqwik and others. The attacks have moved up to government and national levels. Israel and the US famously took down Iran’s nuclear capability with the STUXNET attack on its centrifuges in 2010. Last week, US President Biden formally warned Vladimir Putin against multiple attacks by Russian hacking group REvil (an amalgamation of Ransomware and Evil). Just this week, the US and its allies formally charged China for breaking into Microsoft’s Exchange Servers. Experts predict that these ransomware and hacking attacks on companies and governments will only increase, giving way to Kraken-like obsession everywhere.

While cybersecurity has been a concern for many years, the attacks, and therefore the paranoia, has exploded in the recent months, with a slew of factors combining to create a perfect cybersecurity storm. Here are five of them:

1.       The Advent of the Cloud: The cloud has given corporations a great price and flexibility advantage, and its pay-as-you-go model has accelerated digital transformation and allowed entrepreneurship to flourish. However, public clouds are replete with misconfigurations, and the fact they enable computing at scale implies that the breaches and hacks can happen at scale too. While the major cloud providers like Amazon, Microsoft and Google are racing to build security, there are still many vulnerabilities 2.       The March of the Robots: Hackers have started to use advanced AI and Machine Learning technologies to create sophisticated bots, or robots, to systematically and relentlessly attack the security walls built by enterprises. The same technologies are being used to defend against the attacks also, and so the robot arms race is on. 3.       The Work from Home Revolution: WFH, or remote work, has been a saviour for work and the economy, as hordes of workers moved their offices to their homes and devices almost overnight. But this has also been a security nightmare, as millions of people move to unsecure IT environments and outside the protective firewalls of their office devices, prompting a veritable hack fest. 4.       The IoTisation of the World: The coming age of 5G based IoT (Internet of Things) infrastructure, with its sensors, cameras and exabytes of data generated, will suddenly unleash billions of new, intelligent devices begging to be hacked. Driverless autonomous car hacking has already been demonstrated 5.       New Ransomware Players and Business Models: Ransomware companies have started operating as for-profit companies. They lock an organisations access to data, take a ransom to then allow the company to access it, and ‘double dip’ by selling the data already harvested! Some ransomware players like Darkside and REvil have developed a ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) model, where they do this for other attackers, taking a cut of the ransom collected.

The attacks are getting more sophisticated: they are targeting big companies with an ability to pay and countries’ critical infrastructure, with cybercriminals starting to collaborate among themselves. Experts prophesize that the increasing volume and frequency of such attacks could actually start ‘closing down’ or compartmentalising the open Internet – an ironic statement to make on the 30th anniversary of India opening out from being a closed economy. Andy Grove had a famous phrase, used in another context, that ‘only the paranoid survive’. But it is this quest for survival that drives Kraken’s famous paranoia.  “I heard from people that Kraken is crazy about security before I joined, and yes, it is really intense about it from Day 1,” says employee Takeshi Chino. “But that’s what it takes.” And, increasingly, it is taking more and more.