INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY | Contributed Content, Singapore
Albert Kuo

Strengthening cybersecurity through digital defence


Following recent cyber security breaches, Singapore’s Government has added Digital Defence to the country’s Total Defence framework. In announcing the move, Ministers stressed the need to strengthen cybersecurity as part of the national agenda.

In his budget speech, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that the Government will spend about S$22.7b, or about 30% of its total expenditure in Financial Year (FY) 2019, on defence, security and diplomacy. Mr Heng emphasised that security threats are evolving and becoming more complex, noting that the terrorism threat to Singapore remains high. For instance, authorities continue to detect radicalised individuals in Singapore, whilst attacks perpetrated by these individuals and cells rise globally.

As a signal of how seriously the country is taking this issue, Minister for Communications and Information and Minister-in-Charge of Cybersecurity Mr S Iswaran announced the following day that Singapore has added Digital Defence as the sixth pillar to its Total Defence framework. The original five pillars are military, civil, economic, social and psychological defence.

The threats posed by cyber attacks and disinformation are the nightmare that stalks the bright potential of a new digital society. Digital transformation is seen as the essential next step in the global economy - from the Internet of Things to the Cashless Society, enterprises and consumers alike are promised a dazzling new world of convenience and efficiency.

Recently, the country was hit by two devastating breaches. Last year, the major data breach incident by a local healthcare company, followed by the disclosure online of the medical records of 14,200 HIV-positive people, shook up any sense of complacency there may have been among the authorities. The rapid and decisive introduction of the digital defence pillar has made it clear that the government is taking the necessary steps to ensure that cyber incidents are mitigated and that potential damage is kept to a minimum.

PwC’s Global State of Information Security Survey 2018 revealed that 77% of respondents in Singapore detected one or more cyber incidents in the previous twelve months. The top three areas where cyber incidents occurred were through Mobile device exploitation, followed by Phishing, further highlighting the vulnerability to threats resulting from human error or negligence (Employee exploitation).

Businesses need to evaluate risk by identifying threats and vulnerabilities. One obstacle in successfully detecting an attack is visibility to the activities that occur on a network. Changing enterprise infrastructure has created blind spots, such as cloud services, micro-services, containerised apps, mobile users and devices, internet-of-things (IoT) sensors, and encrypted traffic.

Because of the siloed nature of IT operations, few security teams have truly comprehensive visibility into the interactions between users, devices, applications, and the databases they use.

To overcome those challenges, modern security technologies are being developed using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to analyse network activity and automatically gain improved comprehension and insight from the abundant data available.

Insights provided through such analysis can reduce the time it takes for security personnel to identify anomalous activity, investigate the activity, and respond in a timely manner to thwart the attackers. Improved visibility, such as analysis and reporting, enables awareness of all activities that occur on the network and can help identify any security incidents as they transpire. 

However, even with the most sophisticated security technology, organisations have found that employees are the weakest link. 38% of Singapore companies cited current employees are the likely source of cyber incidents, an increase of 13% from 2016.

Cyber risks are no longer just a business issue but also concern the security of the larger economy. Closer collaboration between government bodies, businesses and various institutions will be required to strengthen cyber defences at a national level.

The release of the sixth pillar of Total Defence – Digital Defence, makes clear the sincere commitment of the government’s approach to cyber security. Just as government has a role in improving cyber security and fighting cyber-crime, the private sector also has an important role to play through improving its organisation security awareness and combating cyber risk, by encouraging best practices. 

Collaboration is vital in fighting the growing threat of cyber-attack.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Albert Kuo

Albert Kuo

As the Vice President of Asia Pacific for ExtraHop, Albert is responsible for the company’s growth strategy and driving customer and partner engagement in the region. His experience in APAC has spanned more than 20 years, leading teams at ArcSight, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Security, Blue Coat, and SailPoint. Earlier in his career, Albert worked on Wall Street as a derivatives sales/trader. Albert graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in Electrical Engineering/Computer Science, and earned an MBA in Finance and Marketing from Columbia Business School.

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