Security experts predict a global AI-related cyber attack before year-end

As artificial intelligence technologies become more complex and better integrated with new services and products, executives worldwide are concerned about cyber security vulnerabilities. While AI is a strong tool for security, security experts also predict that malicious actors will utilize artificial intelligence to unleash a global cyber incident in the near future.

Today, unauthorized users can get easy access to AI-powered systems to create sophisticated cyber threats. For example, AI chatbots have emerged as a novel doorway to cyber attackers, and the Emotet Trojan malware is hyped as an AI-based cyber threat prototype directed at the financial services sector.

A recent global study of early adopters found that over 40 percent of executives have "extreme" or "major" concerns about AI threats, with cybersecurity vulnerabilities leading that list. Executives are concerned about hackers leveraging AI to steal proprietary or sensitive data, for data manipulation, and to automate cyber-attacks or conduct corporate espionage. These results indicate that key stakeholders aren’t oblivious to the possibilities of malicious actors and hackers using AI systems.

Attackers and defenders are both getting smarter

The underlying idea of AI security -- leveraging data to become more accurate and more intelligent -- is what makes this trend so risky. AI-based attacks can be so sophisticated that they can be difficult to predict and avoid. Cyber researchers are doing their best to stay ahead of the curve, but it’s essential to understand that the attacks become more difficult to control once the threats outpace protectors’ tools and expertise. That is why it is imperative to react immediately to the growing possibility of cyberattacks before it’s too late to catch up.

While there’s no denying that AI offers increased reliability and speed to your business, that is precisely what motivates malicious actors. For example, cybercriminals gain a lot from this speed, particularly in terms of augmented network coverage. In addition, cyberattacks can leverage swarm attacks to access the system more quickly.

As the bad actors become more advanced, it is vital to prepare for cyberattacks by leveraging machine learning (ML). Even though widely considered a type of AI, machine learning is actually the type of algorithm that powers artificial intelligence. ML algorithms are specifically designed to enable machines to learn from insights without requiring human intervention, so they have many applications in cybersecurity -- as well as uses in cyber attacks.

How cyber criminals leverage AI

Threat and malicious actors weaponize artificial intelligence by using it to plan the attack and then perform the attack. What’s more, as the World Economic Forum reveals, AI can easily impersonate trusted actors, helping them achieve these nefarious goals. They only need to take the time to study a legitimate user and then leverage bots to imitate their language and actions.

Since AI can become a powerful part of their arsenal, expect hackers and cyber-criminals to get more innovative and sophisticated in their attacks. They may even employ "deep fakes" -- leveraging AI to manipulate and replicate a user’s image and voice.

By leveraging AI, attackers can move quickly and spot opportunities for infiltration, such as faulty firewalls or networks without multi-layered security. Additionally, their AI-powered systems help them explore vulnerabilities that a human could not detect. For example, a bot can leverage data from former attacks to identify very slight changes in your security infrastructure.

While many companies leverage AI to predict the needs of their customers, threat actors use similar concepts to augment the odds of a cyberattack’s success. For businesses, customer data may go into a marketing plan, while cybercriminals use it to design an attack that not only puts the users at risk but may endanger entire organizations.

For instance, if a person receives emails from their kids’ school on their work address, a bot can quickly launch a phishing attack that mimics the same school email. Additionally, AI can also make it challenging for defenders to identify the specific attack or bot. Malicious actors use it to design new mutations of cyberattacks depending on the type of protection they target.

The challenge of AI cyberattacks

The problem with safeguarding your systems against AI-powered cyber incidents is the pace of adaptation you have to deal with. Defensive technology development is often slower than the speed of attacks. This means it’s likely that hackers might have the upper hand if you don’t already have systems and processes in place to thwart their attacks before they ever get to your network. If they do gain access, it can be challenging for protectors to regain access and control.

These cyberattacks are becoming more powerful and can launch at a larger scale by adding new attack vectors. Particularly during the pandemic, when more people than ever are working from home and using personal devices for business tasks, the risks associated with mobile devices are ever-increasing.

According to the Mobile Security Index Report by Verizon, 79 percent of the mobile devices in enterprises are in the hands of employees. Moreover, cybersecurity firms Verizon and Lookout reveal a 37 percent rise in enterprise mobile phishing attacks globally in 2020.

From a business’s standpoint, it is imperative to start with an in-depth understanding of how unauthorized actors leverage AI for attacks and the types of incidents and common lead-ins they exploit. Only then can you work to prevent them.

Protecting against AI-enabled attacks

It is essential to plan your defense to keep your employee and customer data protected. For starters, use PCI-compliant hosting to gather, store, and process credit card info. This is a must for any business gathering payment information from customers.

Here are some other ways to defend your company against AI-powered cyberattacks internally:

Train for secure practices

Some of the biggest recent hacks to date were caused by human errors. So, make sure your employees don’t make avoidable errors like using personal USBs on company computers, falling victim to phishing scams, and clicking on links without knowing where it will take them. As long as you have appropriate protocols in place, it’s possible to minimize the risk.

Know your code

Learn how to analyze all software code for malware, bugs, and behavioral anomalies. As new attacks are likely to use unknown tools and techniques, understanding the bugs inside your code is more important than ever. Testing is critical, both of the systems and products you build and the integrations between ones you purchase.

Monitor your logs

Continue to track and identify the threats and gauge behavioral anomalies to predict security events before they happen. AI-powered tools can be used to do this, so you can harness artificial intelligence to battle artificial intelligence. But be sure you have a human audit the logs as well to make sure nothing slips through.

Wrapping up

As ML-powered technologies continue to evolve, hackers gain highly innovative tools to undermine corporate digital security. But while the use of artificial intelligence in cyber-attacks becomes more prevalent, your business can also deploy it as a tool to enhance security. As a security expert, you need to prepare for an AI-powered system that can assess all potential threat vectors and effectively mitigate AI-enabled cyber threats.

Photo credit: agsandrew / Shutterstock

Shanice Jones is a techy nerd and copywriter from Chicago. For the last five years, she has helped over 20 startups building B2C and B2B content strategies that have allowed them to scale their business and help users around the world.

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