Darktrace CEO Says Cyber Security Is A Global Arms Race

Even by today’s standards, it was an audacious heist. Last year, hackers in Finland used a large decorative fish tank located inside a US casino to crack into its computer system and target high-rollers.

The stakes were high. Their aim was to use the fish tank, which was connected to the internet via the casino’s internal network, to find its database of big-spending gamblers and pinch their details as they continued to count their chips. If it sounds bizarre, the plan was in fact ingeniously simple.

For a-time it succeeded and criminals made off with about 10GB of data. It probably would never have been detected, had the breach not been spotted as soon as artificial intelligence was installed.

This is one of Nicole Eagan’s (pictured) favourite stories, and the chief executive of cyber security firm Darktrace has seen it all. “We have seen attacks on internet-connected coffee machines, brand new buildings that are being built with tech-enabled heating and air conditioning systems,” she says.

“We have seen attacks through garage door systems. There is endless creativity to get in the network.”

Darktrace, one of the UK’s greatest technology success stories, specialises in blocking unusual cyber-attacks, as well as the run of the mill email phishing expeditions. It is one of Britain’s most high-profile technology “unicorns”, worth an estimated $1.7bn (£1.29bn) after a recent funding round.

The fast-growing company, which offers cyber security services enhanced by artificial intelligence, has profited from soaring demand following major attacks such as Wannacry.

Darktrace technology identifies and blocks attacks with minimal human involvement. Referrals from existing clients had pushed the company forward, she says.

Yet the company had relatively humble origins in Cambridge, when in 2013 a motley crew of university mathematicians teamed up with former intelligence executives and a handful of ex-staff from former software company Autonomy.

Eagan herself has plenty of energy too. The 54-year-old New Jersey-born computer whizz went to Montclair State University when she was just 16 to do a joint degree in computer science and marketing.  After leaving university, Eagan worked for five years on Wall Street, where she built computer systems for some of the largest banks, before being poached by software giant Oracle and moving to California, where she has been based ever since.

“We hire a lot of college graduates – they are brand new to business and brand new to Darktrace. If you look at the make-up of the company it’s very different.”

The company has added investors such as European venture capital fund Vitruvian Partners, Insight Venture Partners and Summit Partners, KKR, Samsung and Softbank in subsequent cash-raising efforts. The investment goes into hiring and growing the business, Eagan says.

Darktrace also has an army of graduates from Cambridge Universtity, where the company based its R&D HQ, 10 minutes from the railway station.

The company is naturally secretive: among its ranks are former hackers and spies. Visitors’ mobile phones and bags are confiscated upon entering the building. In London, glass-walled meeting rooms are named after famous fictional spies such as James Bond.

The team is constantly perfecting an AI product inspired by the human body by launching new algorithms, Eagan explains. Like the immune system, the machine learns how to respond to the attack and protect the system without supervision and could remove or at least reduce the need for in-house cyber security experts. 

From her San Francisco office, Eagan plots the company’s next moves. This year alone, Darktrace opened offices in Singapore, Mexico and Sao Paulo, and expanded its New York and Cambridge presence. Eagan’s vision for the future is not battling against attacks from hackers in darkened rooms hiding behind self-made malware, but against artificial intelligence capable of far greater damage. For years, the company has geared up to exactly that.

“We had a very early recognition that cyber security was becoming a global arms race, no longer fought from nation state to nation state, but from nation state to corporate networks. Not just credit card credentials, but also IP,” she says.

“The next evolution of the attack is when they hackers use AI as part of the attack. It is going to be a lot stealthier and faster-moving.”

The Telegraph:

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