UPDATED 18:46 EST / AUGUST 27 2019

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Smarter malware leads Great-West Lifeco to implement advanced protection strategy

Great-West Lifeco Inc., one of the largest and oldest financial services holding companies in Canada, is the target of hundreds of thousands of malware attacks every day, according to its global chief information officer. Yet, that’s not what worries CIO Phil Armstrong (pictured). It’s the fact that the malware itself is actually getting smarter.

“The bad guys are putting artificial intelligence into their malware,” Armstrong said. “Instead of stealing our data, they’d like to penetrate our network and systems and cripple us. They would really like to bring us down and that determines a different strategy in protection.”

Armstrong, executive vice president and global CIO at Great-West Lifeco, spoke with Jeff Frick (@JeffFrick), host of theCUBE, at SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio in Palo Alto, California. They discussed the rising sophistication of external attacks, how Zscaler Inc. is helping Great-West Lifeco protect against them, and the company’s transition to a hybrid cloud model. (* Disclosure below.)

Proprietary technology protects

The rise of AI-infused malware is a troubling trend that the security industry is just beginning to document and analyze, as described in a new report from Malwarebytes Inc. released in June. High-profile targets, such as Great-West Lifeco, are using tools from Zscaler to protect the business by capturing and examining the latest threats.

One piece of malware caught by Armstrong’s team demonstrated how attackers have changed their tactics. “The first thing it did was try to check signatures to see if it was in a virtualized environment,” Armstrong said. “If it was, it just went back to sleep again and didn’t activate. The nice thing about Zscaler and some of the technologies I’m deploying is they’re proprietary; they don’t have these signatures.”

Great-West Lifeco has been on its own digital transformation journey. The company realized the pace of its business was accelerating dramatically as its customers demanded online access to their information and its vast network of financial advisers wanted new tools, fast access to the internet, and safe connectivity.

This represented a significant change for the first life insurance company to become chartered in Canada, according to Armstrong. “We were certainly not born digital; we were not born in the cloud; in fact, we weren’t even born analog,” Armstrong said. “Our history goes back to parchment. This has been not just a technology transformation, but a massive cultural transformation for our company, a reinvention of all of our business models.”

Embracing the hybrid cloud

A key element in Great-West Lifeco’s transformation has involved migration to the cloud. However, like many businesses with legacy systems, it was not a wholesale lift and shift, but a blending of on-premises and cloud environments.

“A few years ago, it was trendy to say we’re going to move everything to the cloud,” Armstrong said. “Now, especially for large, complex companies like ours, hybrid cloud is the way to go. To start, it was because of cost, but it’s because of agility and access to new technologies as well.”

Founded in 1891, Great-West Lifeco’s operations are located in a large, stone building built in the 1930s. Visitors are greeted by an older-architectural style that masks the more modern organization housed within.

The upper floors are now all open plan and digitally enabled. “It’s a real juxtaposition, and that is a good analogy for what we’re going through,” Armstrong said. “The pace in our business has accelerated dramatically, and the change behind all of this different way of working has been phenomenal. We’ve been pleased with the support and cooperation we’ve gotten from Zscaler.”

Watch the complete video interview below, and be sure to check out more of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s CUBE Conversations(* Disclosure: Zscaler Inc. sponsored this segment of theCUBE. Neither Zscaler nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo: JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

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