How IBM's Watson will change cybersecurity

IBM ventures into cognitive security, where AI systems learn to understand infosec terms and concepts well enough to reduce detection and response time

How IBM's Watson will change cybersecurity
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IBM captured our imaginations when it unveiled Watson, the artificial intelligence computer capable of playing—and winning—the "Jeopardy" game show. Since then, Big Blue has been introducing Watson’s analytics and learning capabilities across various industries, including health care and information security.

Cognitive security technology such as Watson for Cybersecurity can change how information security professionals defend against attacks by helping them digest vast amounts of data. IBM Security is currently in the middle of a year-long research project working with eight universities to help train Watson to tackle cybercrime. Watson has to learn the "language of cybersecurity" to understand what a threat is, what it does, and what indicators are related.

“Generally we learn by examples,” says Nasir Memon, professor of computer science and engineering at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. We get an algorithm and examples, and we learn when we are able to look at a problem and recognize it as similar to other incidents.

Information security is no stranger to machine learning. Many next-generation security defenses already incorporate machine learning, big data, and natural language processing. What’s different with cognitive computing is the fact that it can blend human-generated security knowledge with more traditional security data. Consider how much security knowledge passes through the human brain and comes out in the form of research documents, industry publications, analyst reports, and blogs.

Someone saw or read something and thought it was important enough to write a blog post or a paper about it, says Jeb Linton, the chief security architect of IBM Watson. Cognitive systems can recognize the rich contextual significance of that piece of knowledge and apply traditional machine-generated data to help analysts get a better understanding of what they are seeing.

“It’s about learning how to take human expertise [in the form of blog posts, articles] mostly in the form of language, and to use it as training data for machine learning algorithms,” Linton says.

Technology innovation has to actually address the challenges security professionals are currently facing, or it remains on the fringes as a cool but not practical option. Cognitive security has the potential to reduce incident response times, optimize accuracy of alerts, and stay current with threat research.

“We need to make sure these technologies are actually solving the problems that security professionals are facing, both today and in the future,” wrote Diana Kelley on IBM’s Security Intelligence.

According to recent statistics from IBM Institute of Business Value, 40 percent of security professionals believe cognitive security will improve detection and incident response decision-making capabilities, and 37 percent believe cognitive security solutions will significantly improve incident response time. Another 36 percent of respondents think cognitive security will provide increased confidence to discriminate between innocuous events and true incidents. If security analysts were able to stay current on threats and increase accuracy of alerts, they could also reduce response time.

More than half (57 percent) of security leaders believed that cognitive security solutions can significantly slow the efforts of cybercriminals.

These are high expectations for Watson for Cybersecurity, and IBM is working with eight different universities to feed up to 15,000 new documents into Watson every month, including threat intelligence reports, cybercrime strategies, threat databases, and materials from its own X-Force research library. In the video below, IBM's Linton and NYU's Memon talk about how machines learn and what the future of cognitive security technology looks like.

It’s easy to dismiss cognitive technology and its promises of dramatically changing how information security professionals defend themselves from attackers as more buzzwords. But interest from other fields is growing: Cognitive computing is slated to become a $47 billion industry by 2020, according to recent figures from IDC. While cognitive security is still in early stages, information security professionals see how the technology will help analysts make better and faster decision using vast amounts of data.

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