Mikko Hyppönen: a veteran’s take on the future of cybersecurity
- Mikko Hyppönen’s book If It’s Smart, It’s Vulnerable draws on over 30 years in the data security business
- He believes company leaders still underappreciate the value of the data they’re responsible for
- Advances in artificial intelligence are posing new challenges to the cybersecurity industry
Mikko Hyppönen is as renowned for his cybersecurity expertise as he’s admired for decoding the subject for non-experts. He’s also something of an archivist: he’s kept every email he’s received since 1994. All 6.8 million of them.
This meticulous cataloguing was only possible because he’s spent his entire career at one firm, the Finnish data protection and privacy specialist F-Secure.
“I’ve been in this field longer than almost anyone else who’s still active,” he says, adding that he felt a “duty to write” a book drawing on the material at his fingertips.
If It’s Smart, It’s Vulnerable gets its title from a comment Hyppönen made about internet-connected devices during a talk, which subsequently became known as Hypponen’s Law. And those vulnerabilities are multiplying.
“Smart TVs and smart fridges are just the beginning,” he explains. “Eventually, everything we hook up to the electricity grid, we’ll hook up to the internet grid as well.” His mantra is that if you own a connected device, then you’re at risk from hackers, who might live half a world away.
Hyppönen dates his interest in computing to his childhood. His mother worked for Finland’s state computing centre and would bring home punch cards and punch tape, which operators used to store data in an era before disk drives became common. As a boy, he spent hours playing with them. “It’s in the blood,” he says.
The book covers Hyppönen’s subsequent efforts to frustrate, mitigate or at least better understand those who put their computing skills to malicious use. His stories range from helping patients of a psychotherapy centre that failed to safeguard digital copies of their confidential notes, to tracking down the creators of one of the world’s first computer viruses in Pakistan.
If It’s Smart… serves as a wake-up call to those responsible for keeping our information safe. “Perhaps the best metaphor for data is uranium,” Hyppönen writes. “Highly valuable and dangerous – its radiation is lethal maybe forever.”
He urges global business leaders to pay heed, saying they’ve repeatedly failed to act against cybercrime until it’s too late.
Hyppönen spends much of his time meeting company executives and board members, urging them to recognise the risk. A technique he commonly uses is to first ask how much the data they control is worth. This typically draws a blank.
Then he cites examples of firms that suffered costly attacks, such as North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures or the Global Payments breach, which compromised more than a million credit and debit cards handled by the transactions processor.
“I tell them the companies survived, but the executives didn’t. And that’s what makes them care,” he says.
“No company is safe until it puts effort and investment into being safe. So that’s why I always recommend they do tabletop exercises and penetration tests, in which you hire a professional attacker to break into your network.”
As his book recounts, that can sometimes involve F-Secure’s staff physically entering a client’s building, bluffing their way past guards and gaining access to a supposedly secure computer server room.
“You want the good guys to break in before the bad guys do it for real,” Hyppönen comments.
Over the past year, Hyppönen’s also spent increasing amounts of his time helping to protect Ukrainian companies and other organisations against Russian cyberattacks. He avoids divulging specific details about the "tools and services” his company provides but says, “we’re trying to do our part and assist in any way we can.”
Russian cyberattacks against Ukraine predate the current war. For example, they’re blamed for taking a Ukrainian electricity substation offline in the winter of 2015, causing widespread power cuts. Hyppönen says Russia tried a similar tactic last year but failed.
Even so, it’s not possible to prevent every attack. At the start of the war, he says, women and children fleeing to safety in Romania got stuck at the border.
“The Russians had wiped the computers used by the Ukrainian border control systems,” he recalls. “The end result was people queuing in freezing rain for 24 or 48 hours.”
Governments of all colours stockpile cyberweapons capable of causing such disruption or worse. The cost of developing or acquiring can be high, and the temptation to use them can be strong.
“No one really knows who has what, and that can be problematic. And just like real-world weapons, they rust,” Hyppönen explains, referencing the fact that hacks can become obsolete if a software update fixes a vulnerability or a product changes so fundamentally that the flaw is no longer an issue.
“The lifecycle of a cyberweapon might be 12 to 36 months. And you can’t even parade them. So you get no deterrence value, and all that effort and investment you’ve put into building it just goes down the drain.”
The other development occupying Hyppönen’s thoughts since writing his book is a leap in artificial intelligence.
F-Secure developed AI software two decades ago to help it cope with the growing volume of malware. “We would need an army of 100,000 researchers to do what the program does for us,” he reflects, adding that other cybersecurity companies have become equally dependent on the technology.
But what’s caught him off guard has been the advances in AI’s ability to deal with language-related tasks and the mass adoption of the ChatGPT chatbot, in particular.
“Bad people can use large language models to rewrite existing malware to make undetectable versions,” he explains.
“I wasn’t expecting ChatGPT to be so good at understanding existing computing programs, finding bugs from programs written by human beings, being able to find security vulnerabilities – all that happened much faster than I thought.”
Cybercriminals don’t have it all one way, however. Hyppönen notes that security firms can also use the tech to analyse and thwart AI-augmented attacks. “It’s going to be a cat and mouse game,” he says.
But looking further forward, he has concerns about where the wider use of AI will ultimately lead.
“These things are becoming black boxes, we don't really fully understand how they work,” he says.
“It’s quite obvious that eventually, we will have the computing capability to simulate a human brain. Then, of course, because computers get faster, it will be 1,000 times faster, then a billion times faster. When that happens, we humans become the second most intelligent being on this planet.
“It sounds like a basic evolutionary mistake to introduce a superior intelligence into your own biosphere. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. It’s probably going to be very good or very bad.”
That existential threat likely lies decades or hundreds of years in the future, he qualifies. And for now, there are still plenty of lower-level cyber-battles for Hyppönen and his colleagues to wage.
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