Machine Learning for SMEs – How AI Keeps Your Business Safe

Estimated read time 8 min read

Artificial Intelligence (AI), has been heralded as the “fourth industrial revolution” (4IR), and is set to change the landscape of business in ways that are hard to predict. Machine learning – a subset of AI – can be thanked for the automation of more mundane tasks, improved customer experience, increased productivity and profits among a growing number of businesses. 

But Machine Learning is beginning to mark a dramatic change in the landscape of cybersecurity.  As cyberthreats become ever nuanced, machine learning can help businesses keep ahead of the curve and keep their businesses protected. 

A recent report by the Capgemini Research Institute, “Reinventing Cybersecurity with Artificial Intelligence”, found that businesses are already starting to use AI to support their security.

  •       75% of surveyed executives say that AI allows their organization to respond faster to breaches.
  •       69% of organizations think AI is necessary to respond to cyberattacks.
  •       Three in five firms say that using AI improves the accuracy and efficiency of cyber analysts.

With AI taking on a growing role within business security, we’ll explore how machine learning can support businesses, and in particular, keep SMEs (by far the biggest target of cybercrime) safe from external threats.

What is Machine Learning?

Machine Learning is the area of AI that enables software to use data to make predictions without being explicitly programmed to do so. Machine learning is about using historical data as an input to predict the output.

Examples of machine learning in practice can be seen everywhere, from the recommendations on your Amazon account (you bought this, so you might also like this), to your Gmail account recognising malicious emails and automatically sending it to your Junk or Spam folder.

Why is Machine Learning Important?

The benefits of Machine Learning to businesses can be split into two main areas.

Firstly, from an operational point of view, Machine Learning can help keep resources down. Wherever tasks (including security) can be automated, time can be freed up for more strategic and creative thinking. In the context of business growth, AI improves efficiency, reduces costs and saves time.

5  Ways AI and Machine Learning can help small businesses stay secure

Secondly, is the way in which Machine Learning supports businesses in understanding their market better. Whether they’re customer-focused (B2C) or client-orientated (B2B), data can predict patterns of behaviour that will enable them to develop their product or service that improves the customer experience of their target audience.

Why small businesses should pay attention to Machine Learning and AI

Whether your business knows it or not, you’re already operating with Machine Learning and AI already in place.

Many tools you use, from your email provider through to your CRM, will be using data to improve your experience and simplify your workflows. In fact, in 2021 86% of CEOs say AI is mainstream technology in their office.

But with cybersecurity becoming a growing concern for businesses, particularly SMEs, AI-based security software is growing in importance. In fact, around 79% of global company executives rank cybersecurity risk management as one of their top priorities.

Data collection, AI and Machine Learning are, increasingly, forming the basis of cybersecurity solutions, offering far more sophisticated and wide-reaching protection against malware and malicious activity.  AI is ensuring systems can be monitored constantly and threats proactively detected. Suspicious or malicious activity can be flagged up ahead of time and responded to promptly, saving companies from the disastrous effects of security breaches. 

But, how does AI and Machine Learning help businesses in practice?

5  Ways AI and Machine Learning can help small businesses stay secure

1. AI detects unknown threats

Small businesses are affected by 60% of all cybersecurity threats. At the same time, SMEs are least able to bounce back from the devastation a security attack will create.

Cyberattackers are using increasingly sophisticated AI-based malware tactics to invade business operations, and so, it’s in the interests of businesses to use AI to defend themselves. 

With machine learning-based security, businesses can use data to map and predict threats in advance and jump on them in real-time to stop them in their tracks.

2. AI filters out spam

A recent study has shown that the most common type of email attack happens with the target’s consent. Phishing – which is a method by which scammers trick their target into handing over access – is also catastrophic for businesses.

On the one hand, even the most modest email provider uses AI to filter out these threats before they even reach the target’s inbox. On the other, the more sophisticated these phishing tactics become, the more layers of protection – specific anti-phishing software, for example – a business will need to employ.

Why is Machine Learning Important

3. AI can handle big volumes of data

An average business’ network will see a lot of activity, with huge amounts of data being transferred between the business and its customers or clients every day.  These data transfers are a weak spot for any business and have the potential to be open to security threats. 

Given the sheer volume being stored and shared by companies, it would be almost impossible for a human to be able to monitor malicious activity or possible security threats. This is where AI comes in.

AI security software and tools will be able to detect even the most covert of security threats at scale. AI-based data transfer tools will be able to manage data flow in a secure way and will identify and deal with threats in real-time.

4. AI reduces detection and response time

Data breaches happen quickly, and if they’re not detected and shut down immediately, the damage can be irreversible. 

By integrating AI into cybersecurity protocols, your entire system will be scanned and monitored, and threats flagged and dealt with as soon as they’re detected.  

5. AI removes human error

Given that cybercrime is using ever more sophisticated tactics, businesses that rely on personnel to monitor and respond to threats, just aren’t able to do enough. Human error, complacency and even boredom can seep in and leave the whole business open to outside threats.

AI software, on the other hand, will be built to overcome these shortcomings and ensure tasks aren’t duplicated and that systems are under constant monitoring and analysis. 

How small businesses can get started with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

If your SME is new to AI and Machine Learning, it would be advisable to start small and build your AI as you prove its value to your business. It’s also a good idea to start by thinking carefully about what you want your AI to achieve or the problems you want it to solve, rather than installing AI systems for the sake of it.

AI for cybersecurity is a good starting point. You can manage this in-house, or outsource to an IT Support company that will install all the AI-based cybersecurity tools for you, and become your one-stop shop for your Managed Detection Response (MDR).  For example, they can install Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) tools to flag up security threats to your IT Support company so that they can deal with breaches promptly. 

The benefit of outsourcing your IT Security is that they will also have the expertise to respond to threats and deal with security incidents on your network. Rather than entirely relying on data and automated systems to deal with your security, a team of experts will be able to oversee the process and interpret issues appropriately. They will also be able to advise you on the latest developments in AI security software and help you find the right solution for your business.

A word of warning

For all the benefits of machine learning and AI for cybersecurity, there’s one caveat. AI-based security is far from a perfect solution and ironically can itself lead to security risks.

One of the biggest issues with AI is that it can’t differentiate between harmless, yet unusual, behaviour from nefarious unusual behaviour. For example, if two employees need to exchange a large amount of data for whatever reason, an AI-based security system might see this as a threat and lock down the network. The result: Lost productivity.

But there’s a more significant threat. Cybercriminals can actually use your AI against you. Accenture identifies this as “Adversarial AI” by which attackers can learn a business’s machine learning input to ensure the outcomes are favourable to the attacker. 

Thankfully, by working with a team of IT Support experts they will be able to use a blend of Machine Learning and human expertise to ensure your systems are monitored and protected, but with human oversight to ensure anomalies are interpreted correctly and your company remains secure.

Sarah Cantley

Editorial Head at UK Blog for Business & Startup.

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