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Preparing for the Damaging Spread of Viral Attacks in the Digital World, and the Human One as Well

To manage risk and maintain health and security, we cannot just rely on our knowledge of the known. We must redefine how we approach the problem of unknown threats.

By Yinglian Xie March 24, 2020

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about Yinglian Xie
Yinglian Xie is CEO and Co-Founder of DataVisor. She was previously at Microsoft Research, where her focus was on advancing the security of online services with big data analytics and machine learning. Yinglian completed both her Ph.D. and post-doctoral work in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, and currently holds over 20 patents in her field. A highly-regarded researcher, author, and conference contributor, Yinglian is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data security.

Across the globe, humans have been dealing with viral outbreaks for centuries, and we have effectively and painstakingly build defenses against everything from smallpox to SARS and Ebola. Yet, while our ability to identify, track, and battle rapidly-spreading viruses has improved significantly with the advent of new medical advancements, viruses continue to emerge, adapt, and evolve faster than we can keep up. While yesterday’s defenses are sufficient to prepare for known outbreaks, they won’t work against newer and unknown threats.

Today’s real-word threat is, of course, COVID-19.

As we are now learning, despite decades of experience, knowledge, and data, it is still possible for us to be caught unawares. When a new threat emerges, what we know about a previous outbreak like SARS can only help us so much. 

The real root of the problem is our seeming inability to prepare for the unknown. Yet, while it’s true we can’t predict the onset of a global pandemic, there are steps we can take to ensure that we can accurately identify emerging new signals in enough time to mount adequate defenses, even as we simultaneously work to deconstruct the anatomy of past attacks in ways that allow us to apply new intelligence to the future.

Rapidly-spreading viruses are also an ongoing problem in the digital world, and for a similar reason—an inability to address new threats before they launch and damage is caused. As with viral attacks in the real world, yesterday’s solutions only work on yesterday’s digital attacks.  

Fortunately, there are ways we can prepare for the unknown, whether in the human world or the digital one. We can address new threats proactively, in an objective manner, before they result in damage. Technology can empower us to do this, and it’s something we must do.

Right now, we are experiencing a remarkable confluence of the human and digital worlds, as all across the globe, people are drastically changing their behaviors to try and stop the spread of COVID-19. In an unprecedented act of collective proactivity, global citizens are embracing social distancing and moving as much of their activities online as is possible. Employees are working remotely. Students are pursuing distance learning. Brick-and-mortar events are going virtual.

These are necessary and beneficial steps, and they introduce a new paradigm around how we operate digitally as a society and as a global community. Digital is no longer discretionary. It has become a necessity. Yet while this has rapidly become the new normal, it has also introduced new concerns. Increasing digitalization plays right into the hands of modern fraudsters who have the latest technologies at their disposal and are working overtime to try and exploit any new vulnerability for illicit gain. Put bluntly, more online activity means more opportunity for online crime.

Fortunately, what we know about digital viruses can inform our approach to dealing with their human counterparts, and vice versa. Below are some of the most important lessons we can learn to help prevent future crises of this kind:

Reactivity is no longer a viable approach. We cannot simply wait for something to happen and then try to contain the damage. Today’s threats are too large, too fast, and too sophisticated. By the time an attack occurs, it is often already too late. We need to embrace more proactive strategies.

Everything today is interconnected. While there may have been a time when viral attacks were isolated events, that time is long gone. This is especially important to understand as we rapidly move our lives online. The result of this migration is that the surface area for a digital attack is vastly wider than before. An attack can come from anywhere and quickly spread throughout the digital ecosystem.

Knowing the unknown is critical for safety and security. Through the use of advanced technologies like AI—and particularly unsupervised machine learning (which does not depend on legacy data, labels, or rules to surface correlated patterns and connections from raw data)—it is now possible to spot new and emerging threats that are unknown and previously unseen, in real time, and at scale. 

Centralized intelligence is the difference between success and failure. When data is acquired but not shared, silos result. What the existence of data silos means is that one entity knows something more than another. When dealing with a fast-spreading virus, the failure to break down silos and centralize intelligence—i.e., to make critical knowledge available and readily actionable throughout the system, in real time—can result in a continuing spread instead of containment.

We don’t know yet how long the process will take, or how much damage will be caused along the way, but we can be confident that COVID-19 will be contained and ultimately neutralized. And while we cannot outright prevent something like this from happening again, we can be better prepared if it does. We can be proactive, and ready to take early action.

We can leverage advanced technologies to enable proactive defenses against new and unknown threats, whether they attack us in the human world, or online. We can harness the power of big data to understand, analyze, and predict where threats are likely to emerge and draw on sophisticated capabilities to produce meaningful responses in real time. We can embrace centralized intelligence strategies to ensure complete protection across entire systems.  

Together, we have the power to stop the damaging spread of viral attacks—in the digital world, and the human one as well.


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