Modern cyber threats have become increasingly sophisticated, posing significant risks to federal agencies and critical infrastructure organizations alike. Critical infrastructure organizations face numerous challenges, including outdated systems and insufficiently patched software, which make them attractive targets for cyber attackers.

These weaknesses often arise due to the complexity of maintaining and updating legacy systems which often lack basic security controls, as well as the challenges of ensuring comprehensive security measures across expansive and interconnected IT enterprises. As artificial intelligence continues to advance, its use in the federal space is becoming more prevalent, leading agencies to increase their use of the technology as part of their cyber defenses.

However, recent research reveals that although 80 percent of cybersecurity decision-makers believe accelerating AI adoption is vital for their organization’s resilience against emerging threats, only 31 percent report that their organization currently utilizes AI for cybersecurity. Notably, 54 percent of leaders who have implemented AI say that it has helped to accelerate incident response times, highlighting AI’s potential as a powerful defensive tool.

AI serves as both a formidable defense mechanism for protecting sensitive data and a potent tool for cyber attackers. AI’s ability to continuously learn and improve from each interaction makes it an invaluable asset in defending against evolving threats. However, malicious actors also exploit AI to develop sophisticated cyberattacks, targeting vulnerabilities and bypassing traditional defenses with alarming precision.

Maximizing AI’s defensive capabilities With ZTS

To combat evolving threats and address vulnerabilities, AI and Zero Trust Segmentation offer a path forward. AI rapidly automates tasks, detects threats, and provides predictive analytics – analyzing vast amounts data in real-time to identify and mitigate anomalies quickly. ZTS complements AI by ensuring continuous verification of every access request within an enterprise, segmenting the applications with strict access controls and monitoring, thus limiting lateral movement by attackers and containing breaches.

AI’s defensive capabilities can be maximized when integrated with ZTS. Since ZTS involves continuously verifying and monitoring all user and device activities within a enterprise, no entity is trusted by default, even if it is already inside the enterprise. The integration of AI and ZTS means that even if an attacker manages to infiltrate the enterprise, their ability to move laterally and escalate privileges is severely limited.

While ZTS alone provides robust defenses by restricting access and enforcing strict verification protocols, the addition of AI enhances these capabilities by automating threat detection and response, identifying potential breaches in real time, and adapting to new attack vectors dynamically. Auto-labeling, for example, enhances AI’s effectiveness by streamlining data classification, reducing manual intervention, and allowing faster, more accurate anomaly detection. This leads to improved operational efficiency and heightened security as AI systems better recognize patterns, predict issues, and implement safeguards in real-time.

Together, AI and ZTS form a proactive, comprehensive defense strategy for critical infrastructure organizations, enhancing resilience against sophisticated cyber adversaries and helping organizations to stay one step ahead of attackers.

Pushing for responsible AI in critical infrastructure

Deploying AI across critical infrastructure organizations demands a strong commitment to ethics, focusing on transparency, fairness, and accountability. Transparency ensures AI systems are understandable and trustworthy. Fairness aims to prevent biases so that no one group is disadvantaged. Accountability requires organizations to take responsibility for AI outcomes, with protocols to address errors and mechanisms for stakeholders to raise concerns.

To deploy AI responsibly across critical infrastructures, organizations should adhere to several best practices. The Department of Homeland Security has ramped up its focus on AI with its new Artificial Intelligence Safety and Security Board, which offers recommendations for safely preventing and preparing for AI-related disruptions to critical services; addressing AI risk and threats; trainings, deployments, and usage of AI; responsibly leveraging AI while protecting individuals’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. Proactive approaches like these are essential to stay ahead of adversaries exploiting AI for malicious purposes.

To effectively harness AI’s defensive capabilities and protect critical infrastructure, responsibly integrating AI with ZTS is essential. This integration creates a dynamic defense mechanism that is difficult for attackers to bypass. AI’s continuous monitoring and real-time threat analysis enhance the ability to swiftly identify and respond to threats, forming a robust cybersecurity posture.

Combining AI’s real-time data processing and predictive analytics with ZTS’ stringent access controls significantly boosts resilience against evolving cyber threats. This approach addresses current vulnerabilities and anticipates future challenges, ensuring the security of critical infrastructure in a complex threat landscape.

Gary Barlet is federal chief technology officer at Illumio.

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