Darktrace Blog

Perspectives on cyber defense

AI will supercharge spear-phishing

Dave Palmer, Director of Technology | Monday January 9, 2017

Imagine a piece of malware hidden on your boss’ computer. It watches her every move, quietly listening; learning. It sifts through her emails, calendar, and messages. In the process, it doesn’t just learn her writing style. It learns the unique way she interacts with everyone in her life.

It picks up on the inside jokes she shares with her husband. It knows the formal tone she employs with the CEO. And it recognizes the familiar cadence she uses with her favorite employee: you.

Her emails to you are often casual, even jokey. She signs her emails with ‘Cheers’ and sends you corny jokes on occasion. And before important meetings, she writes you an encouraging email.

One day, on your way to a morning meeting, you get an email from her. It reads:

Hi there!

I’ll see you at 9 for our meeting. You’re gonna kill it today.

See attached for a map to their office.

Cheers,

PS why did the refrigerator need a bandaid?
……….. for the cold cuts!

You smile, but suddenly you remember that you don’t know where their office is. Would you open the map?

Most people wouldn’t give a second thought. But the attached ‘map’ is really a malicious payload that, if opened, would start rapidly encrypting data and hold your company’s files hostage for a $30,000 ransom.

Artificial intelligence won’t just be used for good — it will open the door for sophisticated cyber-attacks like this. AI will supercharge spear-phishing with automated, intelligent technology. Hyper-realistic, machine-written emails are not some distant fiction. Indeed, the technology already exists.

Between Google’s DeepMind and voice-recognition software like Amazon’s Alexa, machines can now recognize and copy subtle patterns in human behavior. Recently, an intelligent machine even learned how to write a dystopian sci-fi novel . An email from your boss would be child’s play for an even moderately advanced AI.

Artificial intelligence won’t just power phishing attacks either. It will augment every kind of cyber-attack — including those we don’t even know about ­— with advanced decision-making capabilities. To keep pace with intelligent, unpredictable threats, cyber security will have to adopt an intelligent security of its own.

Want to learn more about the future of AI? You can book a meeting with me and the rest of the Executive Team at the upcoming RSA conference in San Francisco.

About the authors

Justin Fier

Justin Fier is the Director for Cyber Intelligence & Analytics at Darktrace, based in Washington D.C. With over 10 years of experience in cyber defense, Fier has supported various elements in the US intelligence community, holding mission-critical security roles with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and Abraxas. Fier is a highly-skilled technical officer, and a specialist in cyber operations across both offensive and defensive arenas.

Dave Palmer

Dave Palmer is the Director of Technology at Darktrace, overseeing the mathematics and engineering teams and project strategies. With over ten years of experience at the forefront of government intelligence operations, Palmer has worked across UK intelligence agencies GCHQ & MI5, where he delivered mission-critical infrastructure services, including the replacement and security of entire global networks, the development of operational internet capabilities and the management of critical disaster recovery incidents. He holds a first-class degree in Computer Science and Software Engineering from the University of Birmingham.

Andrew Tsonchev

Andrew Tsonchev is a technical specialist in cyber security and threat analysis, advising Darktrace’s strategic Fortune 500 customers on advanced threat detection, machine learning, and automated response. Before joining Darktrace, Andrew worked as a Security Researcher at Cisco Systems, analyzing vast data sets to uncover new trends and developments in the threat landscape. His findings have been widely reported in leading media outlets, including PC World, CRN, SecurityWeek, TripWire, and the New York Times. He holds a first-class degree in physics from Oxford University, and a first-class degree in philosophy from King’s College London.

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