It’s funny the way metaphors take on a life of their own, imitating that which they are representing, until it almost doesn’t seem like a metaphor anymore. Probably nowhere is this more true than the idea of a computer virus. We all know what a biological virus is: something dangerous that replicates itself by attacking a host. These viruses can be as benign as the common cold or as devastating as Ebola or HIV, hacking their lethal way across the world like a superpowered Queen of Hearts.
Computer viruses seem the same way. To those who know about them, they seem like a living thing. They are endowed with the same human characteristics which we apply, wrongly but understandably, to biological viruses: malice, cruelty, and maybe worst of all, a sense of purpose. They are unleashed into the world, and spread about. Sometimes they used by criminals to manipulate the system, and some by those who just want to watch the world burn. The age of cybersecurity.But viruses don’t go unchecked. They evolve, but so do the people tasked to stop them – and it is here that the virus metaphor really becomes accurate, as there are many who think that human evolution has been little more than an arms race against viruses. Into this arms cybersecurity race has stepped Sentinel, a Palo Alto-based company that is the next generation of virus protection. Rather than trawl for incoming viruses, Sentinel protects your mobile device directly – adapting itself to the new world of cloud-based computing, and further stifling the will of hackers.
The Defense Angle
Sentinel was founded last year by security experts from both the private sector and the military, particularly the Israeli Defense Force. For those who think that the military isn’t paying attention to cybersecurity, this could prove a reminder that some of the most dedicated and incentive-filled people work to protect their homelands from cyberthreats. The US government ramped up its cybersecurity budget this year to over $400 million, a very significant portion of the overall defense budget. There is an enormous branch of the US military dedicated to preventing these cybersecurity threats.
This makes sense. Militaries around the world have always been very technologically progressive, a strange conjunction with typical large-scale bureaucratic stagnation. They have to assess and defend against not just current threats, but imagine future ones, and develop ways to mitigate their damage before they are even real.
This kind of forethought is part and parcel of technological evolution. The heart of progress, of evolution, is not raw strength, but the ability to adapt. Cyberdefense thrives with adaptation, but this is generally on the macro level. What Sentinel plans to do is adapt that flexibility to the micro level, down not to your system, but to your mobile devices.
Adaptation in the cloud
One of the most exciting things about the world in which we live is also the scariest: our devices are independent, but thanks to the cloud, they can communicate with each other across a variety of platforms. However, that also creates the potential for a lot of danger. You no longer just have one PC to worry about – you are transferring photos, songs, texts, work papers, and anything else across these multiple platforms, from your laptop to your smartphone to your tablet, either for work or play or for both. The fear is that what we can do has outstripped our ability to protect it.
Sentinel is looking to change that, and after receiving $12 million in their latest round of funding, they seem prepared to dominate the market, leaving solid classics like McAfee behind. As Jordan Novet of VentureBeat explains, “The funding hints at the value of bolstering security on the devices that lots of employees use — smartphones, tablets, desktops — rather than the networking devices that a few data center administrators might have access to.”
This system will be directly on your device, but Sentinel estimates it will take up less than 1% of your processing power, which seems to be a fair tradeoff. This will especially help businesses who rely more and more on “Bring Your Own Device” programs, which save money, but can also increase risk.
In other words, this is a security system that is both more personal and more flexible, consistently adapting to a changing environment and anticipating threats. Its flexibility mirrors the needs of the market – other well-known virus protectors like Symantec are struggling due to their failure to adapt. The next generation of protection (a generation that involves more than just Sentinel) will do more than read the data of known threats – it will immediately analyze new threats and how they relate to your device in order to offer protection before you are even attacked. This will extend across the cloud and to the Internet of Things, protecting you wherever you are, and wherever you aren’t.
And that is the heart of our technological evolution. The people who create viruses are constantly adapting, beating systems, finding weaknesses. In this way (and often in many others) it is analogous to terrorism. Computer systems, like nation-states, can be large and unwieldy, slow-moving and lumbering, susceptible to nimble actors unencumbered by traditional rules. That slowness is what virus makers and terrorists exploit (the two groups often intersect, as well).
But this next generation of cybersecurity is designed to be just as nimble, just as fast, and just as smart. In the arms race between virus and defense, this could be be an enormous advancement. If we go back to the biology metaphor, this is as if our bodies involved the independent intelligence to anticipate viruses and ward off sickness without us even knowing. There is a debate among evolutionary biologists about “punctuated equilibrium,” a theory that evolution barely happens for a long time, and then happens very rapidly. This is still a matter of controversy, but next-generation security systems, designed to protect our smartphones, tablets, and the internet of things, has proven that when it comes to technology, evolution can happen not at all, and then suddenly all at once.