Why is Cybersecurity more than an IT problem – A chat with Raj Samani

Raj Samani is Chief Scientist at McAfee who has helped many law enforcement companies tackle cybercrimes in the past. Raj has also worked as an advisor to the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) in The Hague. In previous years, he has won several prestigious awards such as Intel Achievement Award, an induction to the Infosecurity Europe Hall of Fame, and Peter Szor Award. 

Besides many accolades, Raj is a coauthor of an amazing book titled, “Applied Cybersecurity and the Smart Grid” as well as the “CSA Guide to Cloud Computing.” His primary focus is helping the community prevent ransomware attacks and gearing up their devices against threats. 

We got a chance to talk to Raj about the growing dangers to online privacy and the future of ransomware attacks, and he’s provided valuable insights below.

Question 1: How did you get started with cybersecurity to become an advocate for combating ransomware attacks? 

Raj: It started with external influences. I remember reading the Cliff Stoll book, The Cuckoo’s Egg, and was fascinated by the investigation as it unfolded.  I think this and also (albeit really limited) influences was one of the reasons why cybersecurity was an area I was really interested in pursuing.  Of course, there weren’t really a lot of opportunities within the industry or at university at that time so that was a challenge.

Question 2: How do you think companies can prevent further ransomware attacks and close all security loopholes? What’s your advice?

Raj:  I believe information is critical. Understanding how adversaries are innovating and finding different ways of getting into networks is critical. For example, many post intrusion ransomware attacks are leveraging RDP today, or exploiting certain vulnerabilities. Being aware of how they operate allows the defenders to prioritise those areas that need to be addressed first.

Question 3: How did your team at McAfee or Cloud Security Alliance cope up with ever-changing and foul tactics of cybercriminals? Can you share a few strategies related to your regular work on blocking such attacks? 

Raj:  Partly it is based on the intelligence, and relationships we have with partners in both the public and private sector. Getting insights from them is critical since it broadens our knowledge of threats as they evolve.Also, we operate our own intelligence teams where we uncover many campaigns (e.g. most recently Operation North Star). Whilst intelligence plays a huge role, we also have dedicated data science teams that are able to identify potential anomalies across the huge telemetry that we have.

Question 4: Which is the best innovation in the cybersecurity ecosystem that you have come across so far? It can be a product, mobile app, or strategy. 

Raj: This should come as no surprise, but the No More Ransom initiative is remarkable.  An initiative we co-founded with private sector and public sector partners has prevented over 600m USD from going into the hands of criminals.

Question 5: Cybercriminals are becoming smarter, using phishing emails, hacking IoT devices and baby monitors, and launching ransomware attacks. What are some of the toughest threats that your team has ever faced and how did you overcome it? 

Raj: From a personal perspective when we saw ransomware attacks starting to hit, and even target hospitals then that became a very difficult threat to comprehend. You have to question the morality of people that would actively pursue organizations that are dedicated to preserving human life. What did we do? When the attacks started focusing on hospitals, it wasn’t long before the launch of NoMoreRansom.

Question 6: Do you think the cause of any large scale ransomware attack is the result of flawed security systems or human error? Which weighs more in your perspective?

Raj: Ultimately, I don’t think it matters. I know this may seem controversial, but some of the more targeted campaigns are employing capable affiliates for network intrusion.  A better approach will be to consider how you can detect intrusions, do you have a BCP/DR plan in place? Etc.

Question 7: You have an amazing career, you assist law enforcement agencies, and have tackled the smartest cybercriminals. What advice do you have for people who are willing to take up cybersecurity as a professional career choice?

Raj: Thank you! I speak at schools at least monthly to provide insight into cybersecurity for young kids. I always end with the fact that this is the most fascinating industry, very intellectually challenging, and quite frankly the foundation of our society (e.g. look at misinformation campaigns). The response I always get is, yes but how much does it pay!!

Question 8: Millions of people are still unaware of the dangers and repercussions of online privacy policies. Keeping this in mind, what would you put on a billboard, a message you want every netizen to know?

Raj:  Cybersecurity – it’s more than an IT problem.

Thank you so much for the time, Raj. As for our readers, Raj can be found on Twitter: @Raj_Samani. Stay tuned for more interviews!

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