As cyber attacks become inevitable, security professionals have turned to the digital world for the “inoculant” that can send these cyber miscreants packing.
Tech companies and cloud providers have changed their cybersecurity game. Instead of the old gambit of trying to keep pace with the bad guys, they have come up with new — and improved — ways of analysing behaviour on a network, taking a holistic view of processes. As those familiar with chess might say: “See the whole board”.
Today, technologies like blockchain can be of help, said Necip Ozyucel, Cloud and Enterprise Group Lead at Microsoft Gulf. “blockchain has served as a foundation for transactional transparency for virtual currency bitcoin.”
Blockchain’s architecture consists of a distributed ledger, held by a community of willing participants. Since no one person or organisation is in possession of the entire transaction history — the creation of a bitcoin and its subsequent passing from hand to hand — no one can game the system.
Why is blockchain so smart? Because it tries to solve the difficult question on how to create trust between systems, and this fuels some interesting use cases which the world can use to power modern IT.
In short, it allows people or systems who don’t trust one another to share valuable data in a secure and tamper-proof way.
“Blockchain requires a shared consensus as to the nature of data, and that has hopeful implications for our cyber-vaccine search,” said Ozyucel. “By combining its architecture with AI [artificial intelligence] solutions and even the internet of Things, we can use the encryption capabilities’ distributed nature and audit trail of blockchain to put an end to the concept of entry points.”
Nicolai Solling, chief technology officer at Help AG, said that blockchain technology has received extensive media coverage due to some of the applications built on the technology called crypto-currencies.
“One of the fundamentals of blockchain is that every node participating in the network needs to process the block which gives security to the chain,” said Solling. “But it is also the biggest Achilles heel when dealing with a vast number of computers out of your control. The actual transactions that can be done per second highly depend on the slowest node and the number of nodes as everyone needs to be in consensus.”
For the same reason, he said: “We are reaching to a level where private organisations are building their own blockchains, where they can control the speed of the nodes and quality of the networks.”
The likes of IBM, Amazon and Microsoft are all looking at how to utilise and deliver this sort of technology to clients as “Blockchain-as-a-Service” or BaaS.
Solling said that blockchain technology could be a help in cybersecurity as it is very secure from the perspective of tamper-resistance. But if the application you build on top is insecure, you are back to “square one”.
Tarek Kuzbari, managing director for Middle East, Africa and South Asia at Group iB, said that blockchain is gaining traction today, but the key question is about the scalability, security, and sustainability of the technology.
“Cybercriminals target users of these technologies to achieve what they are looking for,” said Kuzbari. “The top five vectors of these attacks is phishing, which contributes 50 per cent of these attacks, followed by DDoS [distributed denial-of-service], deface of website, code vulnerabilities within smart contracts and the team [members of the organisation],” he said.
He added that phishing has been a major problem in cybersecurity for more than 20 years and it still exists. (Phishing is a targeted attack by hackers in an attempt to steal usernames, passwords and credit card details through emails.)
In blockchain, Kuzbari said that you have the same threats as cybersecurity. It still has the same challenges every company faces such as awareness, training, technology, using the latest equipment, collaborating with a security company to support them.
“What is the point of protecting your home with a strong door while leaving the window open? When everybody says that blockchain is secure, it means the door is secure. But that does not mean the home is secure,” said Kuzbari.
Cryptocurrencies have many a time been the perfect way for cybercriminals to get paid.
“Any cybercriminal actually leaves traces of their transactions for as long as the blockchain is operating,” said Tarek Kuzbari of Group iB. “If you were to go to any criminal and say “Here is some technology where we will be able to track you forever”, I don’t think they would use it.
“Today, there are large projects that focus on tracking and mapping all transactions in bitcoin.”
From a law enforcement perspective, he said the first legal cases for trades on the Silk Road have already been served — trades that were done years ago in the form of cryptocurrency.
“I am yet to see security solutions that run on blockchains,” said Kuzbari. “But you can easily see the blockchain as a platform to distribute threat intelligence, but also as a solution to exchanging documents via mail, etc..”
Since blockchain technology is fragmented right now, there is no standard set of rules to follow.
Nicolai Solling of Help AG said there is no big organisation that decides on blockchain. “If someone wants to do something different he can port the chain, get some nodes running and then see if the new chain gains popularity,” he added.
“You have some programmability in the chain itself. For example, the smart contracts system is what has driven the Ethereum blockchain to such popularity with most of the close to 3,000 coins running on the Ethereum chain.”
Protecting private keys are a big concern
Most blockchain security breaches stem from implementation error and the biggest single factor has been users themselves.
Nicolai Solling, chief technology officer at Help AG, said blockchain and the app running on top of this is based on a set of protocols, which developers need to work with.
“As with all other apps, the implementation has sometimes been faulty, and this is where the biggest crypto heists have happened,” he said. “Another element — probably specific to cryptocurrency — is that users have not been aware of how to protect their “wallets” or identification purses on blockchain.
“They gladly installed a wallet on the smartphone and started transacting currencies. People lose access to the data when the phone is lost as the data to recreate the wallet was not secured. People have thousands of dollars in a virtual wallet which may be compromised or easy to compromise.”
The private key of the individual user on the chain needs to be well protected and this is an area where most users have little knowledge of. “If we move to enterprise apps running on private or public blockchains, protecting the private keys of an organisation will be a key concern,” said Solling.
“Typically, you would do this with technologies called HSM (Hardware Security Module), which act as a vault for the private keys.”
According to Tarek Kuzbari, regional managing director at Group iB, quantum computing has a quite interesting perspective when it comes to cybersecurity.
“It will create new opportunities as well as a new kind of threat and risk for people working in that industry,” he said. “The technology is still new and limited to a few and with limited applications. It will take another five to 10 years to become clear what its capabilities are.”
Before there is a successful post-quantum security attack, Alexandar Valjarevic, head of solution architecture at Help AG, said the security community will need to adopt a new set of algorithms, especially what is called “asymmetric crypto”, as old ones will be useless.
Asymmetric crypto uses public and private keys to encrypt and decrypt data.
“No reason to despair — standardisation process is underway with NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology] and within a few years, we should have a new set of crypto algorithms,” said Valjarevic. “Vendors and solution integrators would then need to adapt current products and solutions, hopefully before the successful post-quantum attack is evident.
“Next 5-10 years will be crucial. Building solutions with adaptability in mind are crucial.
“As blockchain’s trust rests on crypto using asymmetric algorithms, a successful post-quantum attack would be able to compromise blockchain network.”