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Protecting organizations in a post-SolarWinds world

Benny Yazdanpanahi, Chief Information Officer, City of Tyler | Monday May 10, 2021

Insights from City of Tyler CIO Benny Yazdanpanahi, who keeps several Texas cities safe in the rapidly evolving and unpredictable threat landscape of today’s world.

The City of Tyler is the largest city in Northwest Texas, with a population of more than 100,000, and home to several major financial, health, and educational institutions. As such, it is an attractive target for cyber-criminals.

Although we were not a full SolarWinds customer, the recent breach illuminated the fundamental flaws in a rules and signatures based security approach. Cyber security must be adaptive for you to mitigate ever-present risk. As IT professionals, I believe we have a responsibility to educate business leaders – and ultimately the SolarWinds attack should serve a wakeup call to all organizations, no matter what providers they use, to reevaluate and strategize security beyond signature-based tooling. Cities must protect constituents from threats that are impossible to predict, often on small budgets and with lean teams. Here is how we do it.

Cyber AI as the key layer to an organization’s security

In order to protect your organization, you have to understand your entire digital enterprise. You have to understand what is happening within your infrastructure. If someone is uploading videos all the time and that is normal, my security technology needs to understand that. Robust security must know that if something comes from a certain resource, in a certain way, then it is okay in that context. But if these parameters subtly shift, it might be an indicator of an active threat. This is where Cyber AI becomes critical – it looks at human and enterprise behavior, and learns and grows with the organization. When something is anomalous, it does that threat investigation and response automatically. And importantly – it’s not black and white.

We originally turned to AI because heuristic tools were limiting. Most security vulnerability comes from people’s behaviors. Although we train our staff about phishing and other vulnerabilities, having an intelligent security solution is necessary. AI has become popular, but Darktrace Cyber AI truly self-learns all the subtleties of our evolving digital infrastructure.

In our Proof of Value with Darktrace Cyber AI, it actually showed us information we didn’t see before with our existing tools, and this proved to be information that was critical to monitor to stay ahead of unseen threats. Armed with Darktrace, we now know what is happening across all our environments, down to if a new device is on the network that isn’t a part of our IT. If anything is deemed a significant deviation from the normal, it is flagged immediately. This is the power of Darktrace’s machine learning. It learns the DNA of your organization and allows you to see what is most pertinent. This is a crucial and necessary ability for every organization. You can buy all kinds of products, but you must understand your network to know which threats you need to pay most attention to.

Being proactive: Fighting threats with AI

At the City of Tyler, we believe that security is layered. It is not enough to just have a firewall. You have to be proactive and have multiple layers. You have to do the basics, like patching software and educating the workforce – but all of this is just one layer of security. What Darktrace does which makes it stand out from the pack, is that it gives us the ability to react and fight back with Autonomous Response. This is critical when working to mitigate risk.

Antigena Email scrubs our email, seamlessly complementing our existing tools and strategy. The AI actually looks at the way people write emails and knows if their style is different. Antigena Email learns the human behind the accounts on City of Tyler’s infrastructure, using Darktrace’s Cyber AI to learn a unique sense of ‘self’ for the city’s email communications. By understanding what is ‘normal’ for every internal user, external sender, and all the complex relationships between them, Antigena Email neutralizes threats before they even reach the city’s users. It is the only tool that intelligently actions threats in the inbox in this way.

Antigena Network provides this proactive protection to the entire infrastructure, no matter the environment. As our employees moved to remote working, understanding what is normal across contexts has been imperative to our cyber strategy. We have a 24-hour staff rotation and I like to be a hands-on CIO, but Antigena, a solution that actually acts on all the information we have, is crucial in securing our city day in and day out. It is our on-going goal to be proactive about threats – Antigena drives this forward.

Stronger security with collaboration

Municipalities generally don’t have large budgets for cyber security, and small cities may have the purchasing power to buy only a few products. With AI achieving so much in one solution, an organization can do a lot with a single technology, as opposed to piling on tools meant to mitigate particular known risks.

We work with other cities, and share our best practices, because we don’t operate on an island by ourselves. We live in a community, and IT is often the catalyst for collaboration. Other smaller cities might not have as many resources, but sharing our use cases and what we think works can help our sister cities. This community collaboration is how we can help. It makes everyone safer.

We are uniquely fortunate in that before the pandemic even happened, most of our staff were already educated on how to use remote working tools. We were always thinking about how we could make the office seamless, but in today’s world, it is becoming imperative to embrace dynamic collaboration. Many organizations are rapidly innovating to be effective whilst remote, and it has opened up a lot of new vulnerabilities very quickly. Cyber AI is perfectly positioned to support this given it is fundamentally adaptable. From virtual deployment to expert SOC handling from a mobile app, Cyber AI is the solution to secure major infrastructure shifts. With the Darktrace Mobile App, I have been able to monitor and protect the organization from anywhere and see what I need to see at the touch of a button.

I have been here for 19 years educating city leaders about new technologies. I believe cyber security resilience comes from three points: people, process, and technology. AI allows these three to work together in combination. With full visibility, you can pinpoint vulnerabilities before they are breached, whether they originate from the people, the process, or the technology. With the ability to respond to threats autonomously, you have a built-in process layer to protect your infrastructure when it counts the most.

Learn more about how Cyber AI protects municipalities from the full range of cyber-threats.