AI-based Malware Presents Grave Threat

As originally reported in The New York Times, as cyber security companies spread more broadly into developing nations such as India and throughout Southeast Asia, a fearfully anticipated internet security threat has finally been detected — hacking tools, or malware, that are powered by the techniques found in artificial intelligence, also known as machine learning.

As the internet penetrates more deeply into areas all over the world, hackers are finding places in the developing world ideal proving grounds for deploying this kind of advanced malware. After hackers field-test this technology in these environments, hackers then target networks that offer more enticing rewards, yet that have more advanced firewalls and security programs, such as banking networks in the West, or, as in the case of state-sponsored hacking, rival governments.

Such developments could herald an escalating arms race in which the nations and companies with the greatest resources compete against one another for the most effective software tools that can counter AI-powered malware. So far, internet security researchers say, what has been detected so far exhibits only some elements of what a truly AI-enabled malware package could potentially do.

The recent hacking attack in India — which was uncovered and ultimately neutralized harmlessly — was able to independently “learn” the habits of authorized users of the network, in essence mimicking the patterns and practices of actual people in order to successfully worm its way deeper into the network while trying to remain undetected for as long as possible.

Darktrace, a leading cyber security company that itself utilizes machine learning technology in their cyber security products, were the ones who discovered the hacking effort. Darktrace explained that this heretofore unprecedented type of malware used certain advanced techniques of AI, such as the ability to “learn” things on its own, but it did not rise to the level of the what is considered “true” AI.

The network security infrastructure of many emerging economies has understandably lagged behind the West. This poses a tough internet security challenge for governments and companies in developing countries, including Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But as the online connections that are connecting places across the globe continue to proliferate, hackers deploying increasingly advanced malware will over time present just as grave a security threat to the public and private networks in the developed world.