AI plays critical role in network security, according to BT boffin

Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to play a critical role in network security in the coming years and is already helping BT defend its infrastructure.

Ben Azvine, the Global Head of Security Research & Innovation at BT, has been at the heart of cutting-edge network security developments at BT for several years and has helped develop a cybersecurity strategy that combines AI-enabled visualization of cybersecurity threats with highly-trained network security personnel. He shared some of his thoughts on the matter with attendees at this week’s Broadband World Forum event.

“We are taking AI and making it help humans to be better… We are more about the Iron Man version of AI than the Terminator version,” he said, sparking ludicrous cinematic pitch ideas in the minds of some of his audience (I mean, Alien vs Predator sort of worked, right?).

Azvine pointed out that with the number of connected devices growing rapidly, old ways of securing assets were no longer relevant: Now, companies (including network operators) need to think about having a cybersecurity strategy comprising three steps – prevention, detection/prediction and response. The response needs to be much quicker than in the past (hours, not days) while the detection/prediction is tough to do without sophisticated analytics and AI algorithms.

What BT is doing is a great example of analytics and AI in action in the communications networking sector, rather than AI as a marketing hype machine — see ‘Why BT’s Security Chief Is Attacking His Own Network’ for more details.

But security is just one of seven key telecom AI use cases, as identified in a recent report, Artificial Intelligence for Telecommunications Applications, from research house Tractica (a sister company to Telecoms.com).

That report identified the seven main use cases as:

1) Network operations monitoring and management

2) Predictive maintenance

3) Fraud mitigation

4) Cybersecurity

5) Customer service and marketing virtual digital assistants (or ‘bots’)

6) Intelligent CRM systems

7) Customer Experience Management.

“The low hanging fruit seems to be chat bots to augment call center workers,” said Heavy Reading Senior Analyst James Crawshaw, who will be one of the expert moderators digging deeper into the use of AI tools by telcos during Light Reading’s upcoming ‘Software-Defined Operations & the Autonomous Network’ event.

“The more challenging stuff is making use of machine learning in network management. That’s still a science project for most operators — Verizon’s Matt Tegerdine was pretty frank about that in his recent interview with Light Reading. (See Verizon: Vendor AI Not Ready for Prime Time).

That analysis from the Verizon executive shows it’s still early days for the application of machine learning in production communications networks. And, as Crawshaw noted, AI is not a magic wand and can’t be applied to anything and everything. “It can be applied to the same things you would apply other branches of mathematics to, such as statistics. But it’s only worth using if it brings some advantage over simpler techniques. You need to have clean data and a clear question you are seeking to answer — you can’t just invoke machine learning to magically making everything good,” adds the analyst, bringing a Harry Potter element to the proceedings.

So what should network operators be ding to take advantage of AI capabilities? BT appears to have set a good example by hiring experts, investing in R&D, applying AI tools in a very focused way (on its cybersecurity processes) and combining the resulting processes with human intelligence and know-how.   “You don’t need to recruit an army of data scientists to take advantage of machine learning,” said Crawshaw. “Nor should you remain totally reliant on third parties. Develop a core team of experts and then get business analysts to leverage their expertise into the wider organisation.”

Blockchain Set to Play Key Role in Telco Operations: Analyst

Blockchain technology is set to be used by telcos in multiple applications across all areas of operations in coming years, according to an industry analyst who has delved into the potential use of the digital ledger technology (DLT) in the space.

James Crawshaw, a senior analyst at Heavy Reading, says communications service providers (CSPs) see significant potential for the use of the much-hyped technology, which is best known for underpinning cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

“Today, CSPs use databases for thousands of applications. Blockchain might reach dozens of applications in the next few years. Examples include mobile number portability, SLA monitoring, or replacing CDRs for billing,” says the analyst, who describes blockchain, in essence, as a “decentralized, immutable electronic ledger; a write-once-read-many record of historical transactions, as opposed to a database that can be written over.”

Currently, CSPs are considering using blockchain in three key areas, according to Crawshaw:

  1. Fraud management: for roaming and subscription identity fraud.
  2. Identity management: storing identity transactions (network logins, purchases, etc.).
  3. IoT connectivity: a blockchain could enable secure and error-free peer-to-peer connectivity for thousands of IoT devices with cost-efficient self-managed networks.

Crawshaw examined those use cases in depth in a recent report, Blockchain Opportunities for CSPs: Separating Hype From Reality.

And while there is a certain level of marketing enthusiasm around blockchain currently, that shouldn’t get in the way of real-world tests and deployments, notes the analyst.

“Like all complex new technologies there is a degree of hype and bandwagon-jumping with blockchain. Its main purpose is as an alternative to centralized systems for recording information (primarily databases). By distributing the control, you eliminate the risk of a hack of the central controller and the information being altered fraudulently.  By using clever computer science you can replace the central controller (and the fees they normally charge) with software and get a cheaper, more reliable solution. But in most cases where we use a database today we will continue to use them in the future,” notes Crawshaw.

So which CSPs are taking the lead with the exploration of blockchain as a useful tool? Colt is one network operator that has been taking a close look at multiple ways to exploit blockchain’s potential for some time.

The operator, in collaboration with Zeetta Networks, is also set to deliver a proof-of-concept demonstration of a blockchain-based offering that enables network carriers to buy and sell network services in a secure, distributed marketplace. That PoC will be unveiled at the upcoming MEF2018 show in Los Angeles.

And Colt is one of the operators participating in a panel discussion – What Opportunities Are There For Blockchain In Telecoms & How Can These Aid Automation? – on November 8 in London as part of Light Reading’s ‘Software-Defined Operations & the Autonomous Network’ event. PCCW Global and Telefónica will also be involved in that discussion.

There are also a number of industry initiatives involving multiple CSPs: The key ones related to blockchain are:

  • The Carrier Blockchain Study Group, which counts Axiata, Etisalat, Far EasTone, KT, LG Uplus, PLDT, SoftBank, Sprint, Telin, Turkcell, Viettel and Zain among its participants
  • The Mobile Authentication Taskforce, which includes AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon
  • The International Telecoms Week Global Leaders’ Forum, in which BT, HGC Global Communications, Telefónica and Telstra are involved.

In time, blockchain might be joined in CSP back offices by other DLTs. “Blockchain is a particular type of DLT that uses cryptographically hashed blocks to record transactions in a time series or chain. If security is less of an issue you could use a simpler DLT. But then again, you might just use a regular database,” notes Crawshaw.