Can IBM's Watson fight cybercrime?

IBM is working on a new version of its Watson computer system that will be an expert on cybersecurity and an aid to human cyber crime fighters.

Mitro Hood/Feature Photo Service for IBM
IBM's Chief Watson Security Architect Jeb Linton demonstrates how to teach IBM's Watson the language of security to University of Maryland, Baltimore County, student Lisa Mathews on Tuesday.

As private entities and governments are becoming more concerned with increasing cybersecurity, the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) is developing digital protection through another, automated source: its Watson computer system.

Watson first came to prominence in 2011 after challenging two "Jeopardy!" champions on the trivia game show – and winning. Since then, the machine learning platform has become even more "intelligent," helping its users through data analysis, customer support, and more. Watson has also grown to better understand people, and even become more sophisticated.

Now, IBM technicians are hard at work preparing a new Watson system to aid in the fight against hackers and other cyber threats. IBM announced Tuesday its Watson for Cyber Security initiative, a version of Watson specializing in security and accessible through the IBM cloud.

Technicians are currently feeding Watson new information on cyber crime and the security field to build up its knowledge in an effort to prepare the platform for its eventual crime-fighting duties. Using machines like Watson to take charge of cybersecurity expertise could end up helping companies in dealing with potential breaches through the filling of security jobs, the detection of real threats, and analysis of false positives that could save time and money for users that human analysts would not.

"It's automating the hunt," IBM Security vice president Caleb Barlow told The Washington Post.

"It's designed to augment human intelligence. It doesn't replace people, it amplifies a person's ability to be a subject matter expert," said Watson's chief security architect Jeb Linton in an IBM video. "They don't program it, they give it examples, and as they give it examples and give it material to work on, it learns to become an expert like they are."

A recent study found that, while malware infections continue to hit, current alert systems can trigger thousands of warnings for large companies that result in only a small percentage of actual investigations. That discrepancy can end up costing organizations thousands of dollars each year, while the potential cost of unchecked destructive malware could be even more damaging. Beefing up Watson's capabilities could cut down on both risks.

"They can't sift through all the data that's coming at them," Mr. Barlow said of current security operators.

IBM chairwoman, president, and chief executive officer Ginni Rometty this past year labeled cybersecurity as one of the biggest global concerns going forward.

"We believe that data is the phenomenon of our time. It is the world's new natural resource. It is the new basis of competitive advantage, and it is transforming every profession and industry," Ms. Rometty said, according to Forbes.

"If all of this is true – even inevitable – then cyber crime, by definition, is the greatest threat to every profession, every industry, every company in the world," she added.

Cybersecurity threats have become more prominent in recent years, thanks to the growing ubiquity of Internet-based services and widespread access to the Web through personal computers and smartphones. With that growth has come an increased risk of cyber crime that could go unchecked; recent research suggests that data breaches around the world could cost more than $2 trillion annually by 2019.

Development of the new Watson security system will be bolstered by cooperation with eight North American universities designed to increase its literacy in the security field, and further train the platform to identify cyber crimes. The project also includes a partnership with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, that will establish a new cybersecurity computing laboratory there.

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