“It’s a hacker’s paradise out there”

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In what could have been the plot of a Hollywood heist movie, the hackers took great interest in the large aquarium that a Las Vegas casino had installed in his lobby.

The casino owners thought that the huge fish tank was an impressive sight that helped to create an elegant ambience, as the people arrived.

What they don’t realize is that the aquarium was an easy way to get into the casino’s computer system, and hackers took advantage of.

For while the casino had protected your network with the usual firewalls and anti-virus software, the staff forgot that the futuristic fish tank was connected to your system, so that the temperature of the water and the quality could be automatically controlled.

So criminals trying to get their hands on the bank details of the casino of the richest of the players were able to enter the network through the aquarium.

Fortunately for the unnamed casino, and in a stroke of good time, I was about to try a new Anglo-American cyber security company called Darktrace that quickly saw the breach.

“We stopped immediately, and no damage was done”, says Darktrace’s chief executive Nicole Eagan. “But as more and more electrical items are connected to the internet is a hacker’s paradise.”

Darktrace

Ask the majority of the companies of its founders and key personnel and happily real off of a list. But Darktrace, which was established in Cambridge, England, in 2013, you have to be a bit more discreet.

This is due to some of its co-founders, and many of its 650 employees, ex-spies. They have joined the company of the likes of united kingdom, intelligence agencies like MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, as well as the united states and its Central Intelligence Agency.

While men and women bring obvious safety skills, Darktrace also employs a large number of advanced math to take the lead in the development of Darktrace’s cyber security software.

“We are a mixture of ghosts and geeks,” says Ms Eagan, 52, of the firm’s American boss.

The company was created five years ago, when former MI5 and GCHQ activists met with mathematicians at Cambridge University by London-based technology investment fund Invoke Capital.

The idea from day one was to use artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning to improve cyber security. This all sounds very complicated, but in very simple terms, this means that Darktrace’s software systems are programmed in such a way that you can learn and be updated.

And instead of just looking for a virus, they constantly monitor a company’s computer system to search for abnormal patterns or behaviors.

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Ms Eagan said that the inspiration comes from the immune system of the human body.

“As well as the human body, the computer systems of the skin, or a firewall that keeps most of the things, but once in a while a bacterium or a virus gets in,” she says.

“Our immune system has to respond to. You have an innate sense of self and isolates what is not oneself, and has a very fast and accurate response. That is exactly what Darktrace works.”

Now valued at more than us $800 million (£580m) after a number of rounds of investment from venture capital firms, Darktrace 5,000 business customers include the telecommunications companies, BT and Telstra, the world banks, airports, energy companies, and the multinational retailers.

“We’re finding seven threats a minute through our customers at the moment,” says Ms Eagan.

“The attacks are a mixture. Can be criminal or a national state, or a mixture of the two.

“Or it may be a disgruntled employee, like someone trying to upload the data to the exit.”

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Cybersecurity expert Professor Alan Woodward, from Surrey University department of computer science, says while Darktrace is not the only cyber security firm is now using the AI, which is the “pole position” to be the market leader.

“There’s a bit of an arms race in cyber security, and AI is at the forefront of that.

“Traditionally, in the cyber security that I had to know what the virus looked like in the first place in the order of la mancha,” he says.

“But through the use of machine learning that you are looking for malicious, or of the first effects of the virus rather than detect the virus itself, so the goal is to be able to react more quickly.”

In its last financial year, Darktrace had revenues of £31m. At the same time that he made a veiled loss, but Ms Eagan said that this was only because the company was continuing to invest heavily in its growth. “We could become profitable at any time,” she says.

Ms Eagan does not itself come from a security service or math background. Instead, it was a kind of child prodigy of the computer.

I grew up in New Jersey, was an avid programmer as a teenager when his father bought one of the first IBM computers in the home.

She went to university when he was just 16 to do a joint degree in computer science and marketing.

Five years on Wall Street followed, where they built the computer systems for some of the largest banks, before it was plundered by the software giant Oracle and moved to California.

Darktrace

After a number of years with Oracle, she moved to the capital-to-risk, becoming a founder in Darktrace in 2013, and then its head, a year later.

“Thanks to my experience I was able to immediately grasp and understand the technology at Darktrace,” she says. “And I can have meaningful and deep conversations with our director of technology and customers.”

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Darktrace now has two offices in Cambridge and San Francisco, and 30 other people all over the world.

This means a lot of traveling and staying in hotels for Ms Eagan. But one thing that never does is connect to the wifi systems.

“I’m like, ‘don’t do it, don’t do it’. You don’t know what is the security of the system, if it is that protects it, so that is being very open to a possible attack.”