x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Symantec warns hackers on the prowl

Insight The chief executive of Symantec, the internet security company, says people misunderstand just how much risk they take when purchasing online.

Symantec President and chief executive, Enrique Salem, says 90 per cent of hacking is intended to steal personal financial information.
Symantec President and chief executive, Enrique Salem, says 90 per cent of hacking is intended to steal personal financial information.

Enrique Salem will spend much of this year on the road, moving from country to country explaining to the world that it is in much more danger than people think. It isn't global warming, toxic debt or fanatical militants that has Mr Salem worried. As the new chief executive of Symantec, the world's largest computer security company, he wants people to be aware of the threats facing the digital world, which he says are now greater than ever. "When you buy something over the internet and you click 'purchase', do you worry?" he asked on a visit to Dubai last week. "Maybe it's because I know too much, but I worry every time. There are so many things that could go wrong." There is good money to be made in reassuring people, businesses and governments that they are safe from the threats posed by digital criminals. Symantec's near-dominance of the computer security industry has made it one of the world's largest software companies, selling more than US$6 billion (Dh22.03bn) worth of its applications last year. More than a third of the world's e-mail now passes through security software sold by the company, and half of the electronic data on the planet is copied and kept secure by its back-up systems. Spending on security software grew by almost 20 per cent last year, according to Gartner research, but Mr Salem and his competitors must walk a fine line to keep the demand for their products growing. It is to their advantage for awareness of electronic crime and safety to be high, and this interest often overlaps with popular and political support, such as promoting safe internet use among children. But if threats turn out to be overstated , the industry risks appearing alarmist. Mr Salem cites George Tenet, the former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, who was criticised for not widely publicising his knowledge about possible terrorist attacks in the lead-up to September 11. "I met him just the other day and he said to me, 'You know, Enrique, the problem is that we see so many things. If we told everybody everything we saw, they would be panicking all the time'. "So there is a balance. You want to tell people everything, but you don't want them to panic." The source of malicious digital hacking has shifted in the past decade from lone individuals or loosely organised teams into multinational networks of organised criminals. A similar shift has taken place in the motives of attackers. What was once done for fun or exhibitionism has become big business as much of the world's economic and commercial life moves online. More than 90 per cent of the malicious computer programs detected by Symantec in the past year were designed to do nothing more than sit silently within computer systems, stealing personal information. And there were a lot of them: Symantec wrote 1.6 million scripts to thwart these programs, more than all the scripts the company had written in the previous 17 years. And in its efforts to make the world aware of the threats that its software can battle, Mr Salem says he has an ally in Barack Obama, whose rise to the US presidency was driven in good part by ground-breaking use of new technology. "I was lucky enough to visit the White House recently and he made a very clear statement," Mr Salem said. "He said the cell phones, the laptops - all the different computers we use are part of the digital infrastructure of this country - and their security is tied to our economic prosperity." tgara@thenational.ae