Big Data: A Double-Edged Sword In Cybersecurity

by Sohini Bagchi    Apr 07, 2014

Big data security

Data is powerful, but it can also be dangerous. And that’s exactly what the CIO and other C-level executives should understand in the big (bad) data world. While businesses and government agencies are taking advantage of big data to improve customer experience and gain competitive edge, cyber criminals are also mining the same data for unethical reasons. Needless to say, data falling into the wrong hands can have devastating consequences.

The big bad world of big data

Villanova University researchers note that by using sophisticated technologies, cyber criminals are able to distill the data they want from millions of Trojan-infected PCs. Many of them have developed plug-ins to query databases to transfer certain information, like credit card numbers, bank URLs or social security numbers into separate databases that they have full access to.

“In addition to creating ways to mine big data for illicit gain, cyber criminals are also using it to monitor their processes and improve their own efficiency. They use it to spot trends, failures and successes and to make their next attack more effective, just like any cyber security expert,” say the researchers.

This is evident from retail giant Target’s data breach in December 2013 that affected 110 million credit card holders and the network breaches at Snapchat and Skype in more recent times.

In the era of big data, awareness is the first line of defense against cybercrime. For instance, most cyber security professionals know that they need to worry about big data, but they don’t always clearly understand what it means.
-Pallab Talukdar, President - India and Middle East at Aujas Networks

“Today’s fraudsters are active both inside and outside of firms, working to steal business-critical data. Inadequately secured and poorly controlled big data environments can potentially make the job of these malicious actors easier by reducing the number of systems or entry points that they must compromise in order to steal the data they need,” says security analyst Manatosh Das in a Forrester blog.

As organizations are increasingly seeking insight from traditional structured data and unstructured ones such as social networks, sensors etc, to enhance the business value of data, these initiatives are expected to pose a significant challenge across C-suite unless data is managed in a more secured way.

Experts however believe, while cybersecurity in today’s big data environment will face multiple challenges and requires increased diligence and smarter technologies, fortunately, this will open up many opportunities in this space.

The big security advantage

One of big data’s biggest advantages is its ability to analyze massive numbers of potential security events and connect between them to create a prioritized list of threats.

With big data, seemingly disparate pieces of data connect to form a clear picture, enabling cyber security professionals to stay ahead of possible threats and help prevent attacks from happening, say Villanova researchers.

Similarly, Gartner also notes that big data will usher in a new age of cyber security (in a positive way), predicting that by 2016, more than 25% of global firms will adopt big data analytics for at least one security and fraud detection use case, up from the current 8%.

Avivah Litan, vice president and head analyst at Gartner states that a new paradigm based on predictive models will play a crucial role in many security and fraud use cases such as detection of advanced threats, insider threats and account takeover, something the ‘good guys’ can always make use of to enhance business value.

“As cybecriminals are rapidly evolving their hacking techniques, and are attacking quickly, making timely security and fraud analytics more critical than ever, big data analytics enables enterprises to combine and correlate external and internal information to see a bigger picture of threats against their enterprises,” says Litan.

The big potential

While challenges and opportunities co-exist in the big data security space, experts state several measures by which businesses can emerge successful. “In the era of big data, awareness is the first line of defense against cybercrime. For instance, most cyber security professionals know that they need to worry about big data, but they don’t always clearly understand what it means,” says Pallab Talukdar, President - India and Middle East at Aujas Networks. It is equally important to build a strong cyber security team with highly skilled data scientists and analytics experts, he says.

“Businesses should identify and encrypt their data, integrating big data analytics into a solid infrastructure to offer strong security solution,” says Litan adding that in the coming years, businesses will invest more in technology that are flexible and analytics-based solutions.

Businesses should put privacy considerations at the core of their big data strategies, says Ericsson’s Head of Strategy and Portfolio Business Amitabh Ray. “In the past, firewall and antivirus technologies were the main solution to protect threats. But this is no longer the case in the third platform,” states Ray adding that the current status of cyber security calls for big data-led intelligence defences.

In the past, firewall and antivirus technologies were the main solution to protect threats. But this is no longer the case in the third platform. Businesses should therefore put privacy considerations at the core of their big data strategies.
-Amitabh Ray, Head of Strategy and Portfolio Business, Ericsson

McAfee Labs researchers Igor Muttik and Ramnath Venugopalan state that companies should not only utilize big data to better connect and engage with their audiences, they also have to embrace the intelligence to help them overcome the ever-present threat of malicious cyber activities.

report from McAfee Labs states that security vendors will continue to add new threat-reputation services and analytics tools that will enable them and their users to identify stealth and advanced persistent threats faster and more accurately than can be done today with basic “blacklisting” and “whitelisting” technologies.

Big data tools present a formidable defense when used correctly. While businesses are using big data to boost their bottomline and cyber criminals hiding within big data to make it work to their advantage, one can say, with continuous effort, investment in the technology and greater awareness, CIO/CISOs of enterprises can win the big data security battle in the days to come.