Sir John Key: Cybersecurity needs to be at the centre of your cloud strategy

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

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New Zealand’s Five Eyes security alliance and the protection of multinational cybersecurity providers are more important than ever as we face increasingly sophisticated cybercrime, says former Prime Minister, Sir John Key.

Having returned to his roots in business following eight years as Prime Minister, Sir John said his new roles on the board of cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks and as the chairperson of ANZ Bank New Zealand, had given him new insights into the escalating cyber threats New Zealand businesses face.

“Individuals, governments, companies, they play by the rules,” said Sir John, who was speaking alongside Microsoft Managing Director, Vanessa Sorenson, at the launch on Friday of Umbrellar Connect.

“People who are trying to attack your systems don’t play by the rules,” added Sir John who with classified security access, saw the true nature of cyber threats facing New Zealand during his time as Prime Minister, when he had oversight of security agencies, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and the Security Intelligence service (SIS).

Five Eyes access crucial

Those insights spurred his government to develop the Cortex security platform, which lends government assistance to strengthening the online defences of large New Zealand businesses and our country’s critical infrastructure.

Our links with the intelligence services of the United States of America, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada also gave us context to evaluate and respond to threats, which were increasingly complicated in nature as the line between state-sponsored cyber warfare and profit-driven cybercrime blurred even further.

“Five Eyes does give us lots of insights and understanding and we can share ideas in the things that we do,“ said Sir John.

“People will ascribe state actors as being the biggest threat. Maybe, maybe not. There are lots of reasons why somebody would want to attack your business. Even for the best in the world, staying ahead of how good these bad actors are is kind of scary.”

Key had spent time in the “black ops” room at Palo Alto Networks, where the company’s white hat hackers spent their days stress-testing the security of the company’s firewall and cloud security products.

“Its everything you’ve ever imagined from any movie you’ve ever watched,” Sir John told the Umbrellar Connect live audience.

“They actually spend all day hacking the company and trying to blow us up.”

The bottom line is that cybersecurity needed to constantly evolve to meet the changing threat landscape, something executives at entertainment group Sony had discovered in 2014 when their computer systems were infiltrated and sensitive data stolen. 

“People write things in internal emails they never think are going to see the light of day,” said Sir John. 

“But in the world that we live in, that is a huge issue.”

Get educated

Sorenson had, in the course of her career at Microsoft and Spark, had to help companies clean up after cyber attacks.

“I’ve had calls in my career saying, SOS, we need you, don’t tell anyone,” she said.

“For a lot of people it is fear, with security and cyber, no one wants to talk about it. You don’t want to go… guess what, someone is holding me to ransom.”

Her advice to business leaders was to “learn more, get more educated”, about cybersecurity. Those remarks came at the end of a horrid week for Australasian businesses including beverages and brewing company Lion, Fisher & Paykel and car maker Honda.

The Australian Government has fingered state-backed hackers for a spate of attacks on government departments and companies, stopping short of naming the country it considers to be responsible.

Sorenson said that Microsoft’s AI for Good programme was in part about developing artificial intelligence tools to better protect individuals and organisations by speeding up efforts to identify and prevent cyber attacks. Central to that cybersecurity effort is Microsoft’s Intelligent Security Graph, which analyses billions of information every day from across the company’s 200 major services, looking for suspicious activity.

Sir John said employing the best technology was essential as hackers had also embraced AI to undertake their attacks.

“It’s not just enough to have a black ops team that can break into your systems and check whether you are doing well or not,” he said.

“They’ve got a whole next level of determination and capability.”

Local infrastructure a plus

Data security and sovereignty remained an important issue for organisations and Sir John welcomed Microsoft’s move to invest in its own data centre infrastructure in New Zealand, which would lessen the need for sensitive data held by the likes of ANZ and government departments to be sent offshore to hyper-scale data centres.

“We don’t necessarily want that data sitting offshore,” said Sir John. 

“We want to be subject to New Zealand law and Australian law. The physical housing of a data centre in New Zealand, will allow ANZ to put more in the cloud because we want to put it in the cloud in New Zealand.”

As the “last bus stop at the bottom of the world” New Zealand needed to double down on its investment in technology to take advantage of international market access, particularly as Covid-19 meant more business than ever was now being done digitally.

“The country is in pretty darn good shape, but what it has shown us is that we are working online and remotely and actually we are going to do a lot more of that,” he said.

“If you are not taking [cybersecurity] seriously, at some point you are going to get an awful surprise.”

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform, Sciblogs.co.nz.

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