Ax­iom Tele­com founder Faisal Al Ban­nai re­veals his plans to make a global cy­ber se­cu­rity gi­ant

Gulf Business - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert An­der­son

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

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