How to fight cyber crime


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Alumnus John McAdam’s company F5 Networks has become a business with a $1bn+ turnover by making applications fast, available and also secure, helping firms stay one step ahead of the hackers.

This was first published in AlumniNews, Issue 131, February 2014. Find out more about our alumni community at

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How to fight cyber crime

  1. 1. AlumniNews ISSUE 131 FEBRUARY 2014
  2. 2. ■TheBigIssue/Fighting the cyber hackers THE WORDS ‘CYBER SECURITY’ MAY have a futuristic ring to them, but they represent an issue that has the potential to affect all of us at home or on the move and at the companies we work for – even governments are defending their borders on a new online front. For John McAdam SEP27(1990), President and CEO of application delivery firm F5 Networks, the persistent and constant innovation of the hackers, phishers and online ne’er-do-wells has helped turn F5 Networks from a relatively small IT organisation with a $109m turnover when he joined in the burst-bubble phase of the dotcom boom to a business turning over well in excess of $1bn. And, while much of this may be attributable to his business prowess, he attributes recent growth – at least in part – to our love of all things mobile. “I have never seen such fast change as I’ve seen in the past couple of years,” he says. “Mobility has changed everything and is a real driver for our business.” And while that’s good news for businesses such as F5 Networks, it means that more of our intellectual property, personal, customer and company data is at risk. John defines cyber security in the big sense as securing the stability and integrity of the internet and the “whole online environment”. Things have moved on from the rather amateurish ‘phishing’ attacks, where hackers would put up bogus web shop- fronts of banks or emails requesting personal data. Now there are legion and far more coordinated forms of attack featuring techniques like ‘denial of service’ where servers are made to flood a website with data, effectively knocking it out. “This is where you get an organising, informal group of people who want to disrupt a business for whatever reason,” he says. “Then there are attacks on governments, and there are examples of blackmail attacks, where people from across the It’s a digital jungle out there, and any company that gets complacent about its cyber security is likely to pay a heavy price. Alumnus John McAdam’s company F5 Networks has become a business with a $1bn+ turnover by making applications fast, available and also secure, helping firms stay one step ahead of the hackers. He talks to PHIL HEARD
  3. 3. ■TheBigIssue/Fighting the cyber hackers world have got together and said ‘unless you meet our demands we will bring your site down’.” The advent of mobile internet access combined with the ‘big data’ phenomenon that sees companies tracking and storing information on customer behaviour has multiplied the risks. “Big data complicates things. The ability to analyse vast data sets and draw meaningful conclusions from them means businesses know more about customers than ever before, especially in the online and retail spaces,” says John. The ethical balancing act between privacy and security is one for clients to mull over. Cyber security gatekeepers are too busy tackling the growth in mobility and the constant proliferation of apps, which are the most valuable target for hackers. “Making apps secure is a major challenge,” says John. For many of us, internet security may not extend beyond making sure that our virus software is up to date. But, as with flu jabs, these updates tend to be made from out- of-date material – or ‘signatures’ as they’re known. And relying solely on them is not enough. “A lot of security is built on signatures, and you need to make sure that they’re all up to date, but the way you get ahead is by using ‘policies’ – layers of them,” says John. These are the permissions that grant access for certain users to certain parts of a network or specific applications. Similarly, should an employee leave with a personal mobile phone, for example, company-specific data can be identified and removed, leaving their personal data intact. “You may encounter a policy as soon as you connect to a data centre whether you’re on office premises on a computer, or connecting in from an internet café on a mobile or a tablet,” says John. “Your device, where you are and other factors determine what you can access.” He advocates strongly the notion of application ‘firewalls’, which provide security and more policies at an application level. Every company will have a firewall to protect their servers, but having a walled garden filled with otherwise “It’s a game that keeps on going. You can never sit back and think you’re secure because the bad guys will think of something” JOHN McADAM SEP27(1990)
  4. 4. ■TheBigIssue/Fighting the cyber hackers unprotected crops is just not protection enough. “It’s a game that keeps on going,” he says. “You can never sit back and think you’re secure because the bad guys will think of something.” And while every stage of the journey can be encrypted, part of the cyber security expert’s role is to look for opportunities that hackers might use, balancing that with individual privacy. “You track what’s happening, so you see logs of things within an application and if you see that someone was trying something you weren’t expecting, you might think that’s interesting – and then you build in more protection.” The challenge seems to be endless, but recognition of this is now topping the agenda in enlightened boardrooms. “If you go back three to five years, there wouldn’t have been the awareness,” says John, no stranger to most leading CIOs and CEOs. “I haven’t met anyone at board level in a Fortune 500 company not versed about the enterprise risk that cyber security presents,” he adds. “I can’t imagine a scenario in which cyber security isn’t on the list of risk-management issues to look out for.” And, as the online environment continues to grow, John’s company looks set to remain one of Fortune magazine’s top tech stocks to watch. ■