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Crossing the digital frontier: how innovation demands innovative defenses

The convergence of the digital and physical worlds is no longer confined to the realm of science fiction; it has become our reality. Combining the two has resulted in a new category of technology known as ‘cyber-physical’, which utilizes the best from both spheres. This has precipitated a simplification and streamlining of working processes, making it ubiquitous – often without us realizing. And with IoT predicted to reach 42 billion devices in 2025, its accelerated proliferation is set to continue.

Cyber-physical environments are, in essence, the combination of digital processes with physical devices, ranging from rudimentary IoT technology to complex cyber-physical systems, which integrate computing, networking, and physical structures. In practice, this can encompass technology from interconnected traffic light systems in smart cities, to autonomous production lines in factories.

Global expansion, increased expectations of living standards, and a growing demand for manufactured products are fueling the convergence of IT and OT. Processes such as oil extraction and food production are now being facilitated by remotely-controlled drills and computer-led packaging systems, all powered by an internet connection. The result is safer, more efficient resource management, and improved consumer convenience. As such, the question is not why cyber-physical, but why not?

Amidst the excitement of getting these sorts of technologies to market as quickly as possible, potential cyber security risks are often overlooked. The physicality of technology such as AI-powered cranes, autonomous insulin pumps, and automated trains means it is easy for producers to forget about the digital components of these devices. As a result, attacks in these arenas could have serious, physical consequences.

The internet-facing components of cyber-physical technology often serve as a gateway for cyber-criminals. If exploited, cyber-criminals could gain unrestricted access to organizations’ networks, resulting in real-world physical consequences. As a case in point, the recent spate of ransomware attacks against US municipalities caused widespread disruption and even a shutdown of major public services for weeks on end. And as we enter an era plagued by increasing geopolitical tension, imagine the havoc that could be wreaked by sophisticated nation-state actors targeting our most critical infrastructure.

Indeed, attacks on cyber-physical environments can have greater, even life-threatening consequences. In a power plant, for instance, it could lead to widespread pollution and a danger to workers. Attacks on smart city infrastructure might engender deadly transport disruptions for the public, and in the medical field, an attack may mean having critical operations postponed, or even incorrect diagnoses. The ramifications of these hardly need to be spelt out.

Forward-thinking organizations across the globe are turning to an immune system approach to cyber defense to fight back against threats to cyber-physical environments in real time. Pioneered by the world’s leading cyber AI company Darktrace, immune system cyber defense utilizes AI to rapidly learn and understand the behavior of every user, device, and machine in a digital environment. It understands the unique ‘DNA’ of each business, understanding what ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’ looks like across the organization. This enables the detection of even the subtlest signals of emerging cyber-threats, all in real time. Congruous to this is Darktrace Antigena, a technology which autonomously fights back to contain in-progress attacks at machine speed.

Darktrace’s AI can secure environments of all kinds, no matter the complexity or scale. With an industry agnostic approach, Darktrace protects companies of all sectors – from Drax, the UK’s leading power infrastructure company, to King’s Hawaiian, a favorite US bakery.

Unpredictability is the name of the game in cyber defense. And with ever more devices being added to increasingly complex networks, AI is needed to discern patterns and autonomously halt issues in their tracks; humans simply cannot keep up. To stay ahead, organizations must turn to cyber AI as their most fundamental ally. Only then will they have power to detect and respond to cyber-attacks in real-time.