SMARTPHONES ARE CHANGING OUR LIVES IN ALL SORTS OF WELCOME WAYS, BUT MOCANA FOUNDER ADRIAN TURNER RECKONS WE SHOULDN’T BE SO TRUSTING.
Adrian Turner has quite a knack for spotting the Next Big Thing. More than a decade ago, the Australianborn entrepreneur predicted not only the wireless revolution, but also the development of the smartphone. He could see how mobiles, which were then just voice and short texting devices, could become remote controls for just about everything once the handsets were able to “talk” to all manner of other devices via the internet, allowing us to pay bills on the web, program our entertainment systems and even feed parking meters. (According to a report from Cisco, the number of mobileconnected devices is expected to exceed the world’s population by the end of this year.)
While Turner was by no means the only person to foresee the endless array of devices connected to the web once it was unchained from the desktop PC, he was one of the few to understand the security challenges posed by this brave new world of connectivity.
Just three years after he moved to the US in 1999, the self-confessed security geek had set up his company, Mocana, in the heart of Silicon Valley. It has since grown into one of the most respected IT security firms and was one of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers for 2012.
For a risk taker like Turner, Silicon Valley proved to be the perfect fit or, as he prefers to describe it, “ecosystem” for his business goals. “There is a unique set of conditions that exists nowhere else. There is a tolerance for risk and an absence of stigma if you fail; an absolute concentration of venture capital; and great academic institutions like Stanford. That is why the leading 150 companies [in Silicon Valley] are bigger than the entire ASX.”
Turner says he could see the mobile phone maturing into a handset computer with the “exponential growth of mobile telephony, the decreased cost of computing and expanding bandwidth”. (That ever-growing bandwidth means two thirds of global mobile data traffic will be video by 2016.)
Turner, 41, had his first glimpse of a hi-tech future in 1996, when the graduate from the University of Technology, Sydney joined the optical giant OPSM as a marketing manager at a time when its biggest fear was interactive TV and products sold direct to the customer.
But it was when he was setting up internet kiosks for OzEmail about a year later that Turner had what he calls his “crossover point” – the realisation that the internet was a gamechanger not just in communications, but in business and marketing, too.
One of Turner’s favourite books is Robert Vamosi’s When Gadgets Betray Us. “Should we be so trusting of these connected systems? No, I don’t think so.”
He says that many people falsely imagine their mobile phones are somehow safer than their PCs, or that all their personal data is removed once they take out their SIM card. As has been shown everywhere from YouTube to CNN, a hacker needs only your mobile number to spy on your every online move, to break into your voicemail, to steal your user
name and passwords to bank accounts, your credit card numbers, your contact lists and text messages. If you’re using Facebook and Twitter on your mobile, just think what other goodies might be up for grabs with just a bit of nosing around: the names of your children or your pets or your mother’s maiden name. In short, those highly personal snippets that you use to verify your identity when you call the bank or credit company, details that a hacker can use to pretend to be you.
Does Mocana ever use hackers, as the US Department of Defence does, to test security hardware and software? “No, but we have two partner companies that specialise in breaking into systems. We never do it ourselves.”
Turner can see particular risks in the 21stcentury fondness for sharing any number of personal details on social networks, which explains why he won’t discuss his own family in interviews, or give too much away about himself, beyond saying that he’s a cricket nut, dabbles in oil painting – especially abstracts – and gets his adrenalin hit from racing cars. “Because of the nature of the security business, I perceive a risk in giving out details about my wife and children,” he says.
Turner thinks these risks will mount as we move to the next wave of mobile connectivity, which includes keyless entry to our cars, selfdiagnostic engines communicating to service centres, web-connected medical devices and automatic point-of-sale transactions using our handsets. Think of your phone as an embassy in Syria, he says. “You have no control over the surrounding environment, so you’ll need four impregnable walls (the hardware) as well as security personnel (the software) to protect the data inside it.” Turner has had 100 people, including 50 engineers, at work on his security architecture for more than eight years.
The war zone analogy may be apt, because mobile technology poses far more formidable and thorny security challenges than on PCs, as Turner explains. “The anti-virus programs on PCs have a big footprint. They are tens to hundreds of megabytes and incredibly CPUintensive, which is why the machines can’t be productive when their scanning software starts up. That approach just doesn’t work on a battery-operated handset. On the PC, it’s all about fighting malware and viruses; on the phones, it’s about preventing data leakage.”
The most trusted security execution, he adds, is one carved into the silicon chip of the phone itself. “We have developed a program that toggles between hardware and software.” Mocana’s slate of software now supports 2450 combinations of operating systems.
The company has a global list of premier clients, including four of the Android handset manufacturers, as well as enterprises in the finance, aviation, health and energy sectors. “We are tracking towards being a NASDAQlisted company,” Turner says.
It’s an indicator of how much confidence he has in his own products that he advocates a star or number rating on connected devices. “The first step is industry self-certification, but the government does have to be involved.”
With smartphone use surging in countries such as the US and Australia, powered by the tremendous success of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android operating systems, Turner predicts a range of social benefits, including energy monitoring and helping the aged live independently for longer. He had little trouble recently raising $ 25 million in new funding through Trident Capital.
A passionate advocate for his homeland – his ebook Blue Sky Mining investigates why Australia, unlike the US, has been unable to turn its many innovations and breakthroughs into billion-dollar industries – Turner was until recently the chairman of Australia’s leading expatriate network, Advance.
“We intend to open an office in Australia, which has great security engineers,” he says. “And I haven’t ruled out returning to live with my family. I want to give something back to my own country.”
Turner is not at all shy about predicting the Next Big Thing. Advances in artificial intelligence will create self-learning machines and a “thinking” internet that will spur the next phase of the technological revolution. Machine learning and analytics, he says, will hit “harder and faster than anyone realises”.