Artificial intelligence (AI) plays a major role in cyberattacks and is proving both a “double-edged sword” and a “tremendous challenge”, according to NATO.
“Artificial intelligence allows defenders to analyze networks more automatically and fend off attacks rather than doing it manually. But the other way around, of course, it’s the same game,” said David van Weel , NATO Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, to reporters earlier this month.
Cyberattacks, both against national infrastructure and private companies, have increased exponentially and have become a focal point since the war in Ukraine. NATO said this year that a cyber attack on one of its member states could trigger Article 5, meaning an attack on one member is considered an attack on all and could trigger a collective response.
AI-based tools can be used to better detect and protect against threats, but on the other hand, cybercriminals can use the technology for more sporadic attacks that are harder to defend against because they are so many simultaneously.
AI can be used to attempt to break into networks by using credentials and algorithms to crack systems, van Weel said.
Trying to solve the combinations “is a huge challenge,” he said, adding, “of course we want to be ethical users of AI.”
He said AI will be used for defense “but of course we cannot guarantee that our opponents, who are trying to break in, are using AI in the same ethical way.”
“It’s something we have to take into account in our defence. It’s definitely something we’re watching.”
Cyber defense put to the test
The way to defend against AI cyber attacks is being tested in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, at CR14 NATO Cyber Range.
Earlier this month, army commanders from more than 30 countries (not all NATO members) descended on the cyber range to put their skills to the test on how they would defend their country while working with their allies.
Fictional scenarios were created and one of the biggest challenges of the annual event was dealing with the threat of AI attacks.
“In the AI experience, it’s basically a two-way street. It’s about recognizing the AI that’s being used by adversaries and on the other hand exploring how the AI can support our own operations,” said Bernd Hansen, Head of Cyberspace Branch at NATO’s Allied Command Transformation.
“We expose technical experiences to the operational community to ensure that what we are trying to develop from a technical perspective actually serves the operator – so that we don’t walk left when they want us to walk left. right,” he told Euronews Next.
The exercises have helped the participants, but there is still a long way to go to counter the threat.
AI is “certainly a robust problem that I think the cyber community is tackling,” said Candace Sanchez, chief executive planner in the United States who participated in the cyber drills.
“But I think it will take time to really try to counter this threat. So working together in these efforts to try to do that, I think that will help us move forward,” she told Euronews Next.
The price of internet freedom
AI-based cyberattacks can be used not only to shut down infrastructure, but also to exploit information, said Alberto Domingo, technical director of cyberspace at NATO’s Allied Command Transformation.
“I think AI is a critical threat. The number of attacks is increasing exponentially all the time,” he told Euronews Next, adding that right now the world is “just living with these attacks” and needs more cybersecurity rules.
“We are not yet at a stage where we identify that this is simply not acceptable. These behaviors cannot be allowed in cyberspace,” he said.
“It shows you that we still don’t have a common collective approach to react to these things, but these things are just not acceptable.”
Although solutions are being developed to combat AI cyberattacks, Domingo said we cannot stop them if we still want the internet to be a place of free thought and independence.
“We created cyberspace in a way that was open to everyone. It is an environment to develop ideas. That’s what we want. We want freedom in cyberspace,” he said, adding that ending that in favor of limiting what we can do on the internet is too expensive.
“The price we have to pay for this [Internet freedom] is to be realistic and accept that there will be attacks in the networks,” he said.
“And the only way to deal with that is to use all of the mechanisms and all of the technologies included to protect yourself, but also to react and also to recover from those attacks. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to avoid them now. “.