Axiom Telecom founder Faisal Al Bannai reveals his plans to make a global cyber security giant
Faisal Al Bannai on his plans to build a security giant
At first glance, cyber security firm DarkMatter appears as mysterious as the material it is named after – said to be completely invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
After keeping a relatively low profile when it began operations last year, the company has emerged as a major sponsor of technology events in 2016, with rumours swirling online as to its actual purpose.
But if DarkMatter itself is unfamiliar, standing at its helm is a name many in UAE business circles will know immediately.
Faisal Al Bannai, credited with founding mobile retailer Axiom Telecom in 1997 and turning it into a $2.2bn business, is eyeing his next success story, with the aim of putting the UAE on the cyber security map.
The key to doing so, he suggests in an interview with will be doing what no other cyber security firm has done before – anchoring itself and its key security experts in the Gulf region.
“The region is spending a lot on technology through smart cities, upgrading infrastructure and some other things,” he explains.
”But there hasn’t been any serious player headquartered here and having any anchor team members here in this region.
“Most of the global players might have offices in this region but in reality their key subject matter experts are really based in their home market, whether it's the US, UK or France, because frankly that is where their anchor customers are.”
It was with this in mind that DarkMatter was incorporated in 2014 and work began on “attracting some extremely exceptional talent” to the UAE.
Now on the roster is a team includ- ing the former managing director of Cisco UAE Rabih Dabboussi, former head of cloud security at Salesforce Harshul Joshi, the CTO and co-founder of encrypted messaging app Wickr Dr Robert Statica and the former CFO of Aerospace and Engineering services at Mubadala Samer Khalife.
Crucial to attracting this talent in a global market facing a shortage of cyber security experts has been deals with some significant anchor clients, Al Bannai suggests, particularly UAE government entities. “Working with anchor UAE government entities and being a sole partner for them definitely helped the company scale up," he says.
“If you don’t get – in the early days – a good amount of anchor clients you will normally struggle as you try to grow and really attract exceptional talent.”
Now on firmer ground the company is looking to take business away from some of the larger players in the field, with the promise of experts closer to home.
Al Bannai cites the setting up of the company’s secure communications division where it was able to attract Michael Pak, the former head of security and privacy engineering at Google Nest and VP of security R&D for Samsung Electronics, as well as staff from Blackberry and Qualcomm, as an example of its executive lure.
But this is not to say the company will compete with global firms in all areas.
In April it confirmed a partnerships with American firm Symantec Corporation to provide security solutions and services to customers.
“Although we compete with some of these companies, not mentioning their names, they are also our partners,” he says.
“It is a world where you need to collaborate and you need to compete in other areas.
Growing cyber threats
DarkMatter’s appearance from seemingly nowhere comes at an interesting time in the global cyber security landscape.
Annual losses from cyber attacks now exceed $7.7m on average per large organisation globally, according to the Ponemon Institute, and they are also in the headlines. Last month saw one of the largest distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks ever seen, with an army of compromised connected devices used to to bring down popular websites including Twitter, PayPal, Amazon, Netflix and the New York Times.
More locally, the UAE has become the target for 5 per cent of the world’s cyber attacks, according to some estimates, with the frequency of attacks increasing 500 per cent over the last five years. Among them, the targeting of several UAE banks with DDoS attacks last year, impacting e-banking and websites.
Al Bannai links the increasing fre- THERE IS NO SILVER BULLET. WHAT WE ARE PREACHING AT DARKMATTER IS YOU NEED A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO CYBER SECURITY. YOU CAN’T JUST SAY I’M GOING TO BUY THIS PIECE OF HARDWARE OR ISSUE THIS REGULATION HERE OR THERE. YOU NEED TO DO A WHOLE HOST OF THINGS. quency of attacks against the country to its visibility in the media and role as a transit point for so many people, but also to rising connectivity as cities like Dubai seek to become the smartest in the world.
“It [smart city plans] is very efficient to the city and economy and way of life but at the same time more connectivity, more digitisation means more risk when it comes to cyber security,” he says. If you are in the Stone Age there is no cyber security issue.”
However, while plans to add connectivity to every aspect of life, including water, power, transport and other systems, as part of the smart city vision may increase a city’s vulnerability to cyber attacks, Al Bannai suggests a key differentiator is how governments try to address the issue.
“There is no silver bullet. What we are preaching at DarkMatter is you need a holistic approach to cyber security. You can’t just say I’m going to buy this piece of hardware or issue this regulation here or there. You need to do a whole host of things,” he suggests.
He adds that these include vetting the technology being installed for critical infrastructure, building the right reference architecture and security operations centre, and issuing the right products with full visibility on the source code to how it is being deployed.
Then there is the need for a broad overview of how cyber attacks could impact a city where all the key systems are connected.
DarkMatter is aiming to position itself at the centre of this process through the recent launch of its cyber resilience platform, a citywide dashboard to assess and predict cyber risk and predict how an attack on one entity could affect another.
In other areas too it is aligning with UAE government objectives. Most noticeably with its own solutions and advisory services for bitcoin database technology, blockchain.
Last month the Dubai government announced plans to use blockchain, which is valued for its transparency and apparent resilience to tampering, for all government documents by 2020.
“Due to it being a new technology