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Tracking Nation State Actors

Ep. 10

Watchdogs in tow, hosts Nic Fillingham and Natalia Godyla are joined by guest Randy Treit, Principal Security Leader at Microsoft, to examine the process of identifying the source of a threat and stopping the spread by protecting “patient zero.” Randy has a few key tricks up his sleeve as a defender, but you can decide if they’re more impressive than the antics he and his identical twin have pulled while working at Microsoft.


In the second segment, Jeremy Dallman, Principal Program Manager at Microsoft, discusses why some bad actors are known in the security world under some of the most seemingly harmless codenames, such as “Fancy Bear” and “Charming Kitten”, and highlights the techniques his team is using to protect Microsoft’s customers from Nation-State actors. 

 

In This Episode, You Will Learn: 

• How Microsoft is defending and protecting patient zero

• The history of Defender and antimalware

• The process of finding gaps in protections

• The importance of protecting customers from Nation-State actors

• How and why security vendors use codenames to refer to threat activity groups 

 

Some Questions We Ask:

• What is different about focusing on patient zero than other aspects of security?

• How does Microsoft measure the false positive rate in protecting patient zero?

• What tools are being used on a day-to-day basis in defender security?

• Why does Microsoft partner with the industry to identify Nation-State actors?

• How many groups are utilizing AI and ML to enhance their ability to become a threat? 

 

Resources


Microsoft Digital Defense Report:  

https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/security/business/security-intelligence-report 


Randy’s LinkedIn 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/rtreit/ 


Jeremy’s LinkedIn 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeremydallman/ 


Nic’s LinkedIn 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicfill/ 


Natalia’s LinkedIn 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliagodyla/ 


Microsoft Security Blog:  

https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/ 


Transcript

(Full transcript can be found at https://aka.ms/SecurityUnlockedEp10)


 Nic Fillingham:

Hello, and welcome to Security Unlocked, a new podcast from Microsoft, where we unlock insights from the latest in news and research from across Microsoft security engineering and operations teams. I'm Nic Fillingham.


Natalia Godyla:

And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories from Microsoft security, deep dive into the newest threat intel, research and data science.


Nic Fillingham:

And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft security. If you enjoy the podcast, have a request for a topic you'd like covered or have some feedback on how we can make the podcast better.


Natalia Godyla:

Please contact us at securityunlockedatmicrosoft.com or via Microsoft Security on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you. Hey Nic, how's it going?


Nic Fillingham:

Hello, Natalia. It's going well, thank you. Welcome to episode 10 double digits. It feels like a milestone. That's a milestone, right?


Natalia Godyla:

Heck, yes. I think we were proud of ourselves after episode two. So I feel like this feels a little bit more legitimate, a good start to 2021.


Nic Fillingham:

Great start to 2021. But we were talking, just before we started recording and there is some sad news.


Natalia Godyla:

Okay. So to listeners that had heard and loved our story about the Somerville Turkey, of course. The Somerville Turkey is no longer, so the Somerville residents had fed the turkey and the turkey became aggressive as a result. And it is no longer a hallmark of our city.


Nic Fillingham:

The problem was they fed the turkey pure creatin, that was the issue and Red Bull.


Natalia Godyla:

They didn't publish that in the news story, they're trying to keep that hash, hash.


Nic Fillingham:

That's why it got aggressive. But no, if you have no idea what we're talking about on our Thanksgiving episode, Natalia told us about a famous turkey in Boston that has a name and it's got an Instagram page or something like that, but unfortunately it's no more, it's pretty sad.


Natalia Godyla:

Now that the turkey is no longer, maybe we should memorialize it.


Nic Fillingham:

Ooh, so you're thinking we could potentially adopt the Somerville Turkey as our Security Unlocked mascot. Maybe we could create some kind of small statues, some kind of plush toy, is that where you're going?


Natalia Godyla:

For some reason, my immediate image was a butter sculpting contest, in which we sculpted butter sculptures of the turkey.


Nic Fillingham:

Hang on, what? So, I had said as a mascot and something, I think I said the word swag, at least it was in my brain. So something we could send to listeners, and so I just immediately jumped to the logistics of how do you send butter through the US Postal Service in an intricate shape, like that of a turkey?


Natalia Godyla:

Yeah. I don't think you should be taking my suggestions quite so realistically, I mean-


Nic Fillingham:

If we had to choose though, between memorializing the Somerville Turkey and our previous plan which was the mighty alpaca as our animal mascot, where are you leaning?


Natalia Godyla:

Alpaca.


Nic Fillingham:

Can we justify that from a security perspective? Is there any security link whatsoever from either a turkey, Somerville Turkey or an alpaca? What are you looking up? You're looking up something right now.


Natalia Godyla:

I'm looking up facts about alpacas because I have to be honest, this is purely on level of cuteness for me.


Nic Fillingham:

Okay. So our Executive Producer, Bruce Bracken has just chimed in saying that god llamas and god alpacas are a thing. So it says here that a god llama, alpaca or hybrid can be used in farming to protect sheep, goats, hens, or other livestock from coyotes, dogs, foxes, and other predators. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. We now have a solid link from the alpaca to security. Well done everybody, congratulations, mission accomplished, we can go home now. All right, beautiful.


Natalia Godyla:

On a minimum, we can talk about our next episode.


Nic Fillingham:

Absolutely. All right, so let's table that. We've decided it is going to be the alpaca because the alpaca can be employed as a rudimentary guardian of livestock. But speaking of the podcast, on today's episode, first up we have Jeremy Dallman joining us from the MSTIC Group. I'm not going to explain what MSTIC stands for because Jeremy will talk about it. And it's a great start to the conversation. Jeremy is coming on to talk to us about the nation-state section or chapter in the Microsoft Digital Defense Report, the MDDR, this is the third of five conversations that we're going to be having on Security Unlocked, where we deep dive into some of the topics covered in that report.


Nic Fillingham:

This is also I think, the first time that the MSTIC team have compiled a lot of their nation-state tracking activity over a sort of 12 month period into a single report. So first of all, it's a great read, make sure you download the report, aka.ms/digitaldefense. And then, it's a great conversation with Jeremy who really helps us sort of understand some of the core principles and ideas around sort of why is Microsoft in this space, and then sort of what does Microsoft do with tracking nation-state actors. And then after Jeremy, we talk to-


Natalia Godyla:

Randy Treit, a Principal Security Researcher at Microsoft, a long time employee at Microsoft who has seen a lot of different groups and brings that expertise to his security team today. So we're talking to him about his path to security and he is another security professional who doesn't have a formal or standard path to security. So he doesn't have a formal education. And I think it's a good testament to the fact that so many security folks are autodidactic and just have a love of technology and find themselves continuously passionate and interested in it, and eventually get to do their passion for a job.


Nic Fillingham:

On with the pod?


Natalia Godyla:

On with the pod.


Nic Fillingham:

Jeremy Dallman, welcome to the Security Unlocked podcast. How are you doing?


Jeremy Dallman:

I'm doing great guys. Thanks for having me.


Nic Fillingham:

Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. This is one of several conversations we're going to have with folks that have contributed to the Microsoft Digital Defense Report that was released in September of 2020. Jeremy, thanks for coming on. You're going to talk to us about chapter two, which is the chapter that talks about nation-state threats. This is going to be a fascinating conversation. I'm really, really interested and excited to hear what you've got to tell us. But can we just start a little bit with, who are you? What's your job? What do you do at Microsoft? What does your day-to-day look like?


Jeremy Dallman:

Sure. So let's see, in Microsoft terms, I'm a Principal Program Manager, in the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center. We call ourselves MSTIC. So I'll probably use that term off and on throughout the conversation, it's much easier to say it than Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center. As a Program Manager in MSTIC, I am responsible for, let's see, directing a large number of projects that kind of span incubation and driving threat intelligence initiatives, both in MSTIC and across Microsoft.


Jeremy Dallman:

I do things around building and creating strong collaboration partnerships across the security industry, because malicious actors, like nation-state actors, don't just target Microsoft. I also work on sourcing the best possible tooling for our analyst and managing all of our public facing messaging around MSTIC and the threats that we track. So I guess in general, my role is always looking for ways to improve how MSTIC protects our customers, making sure that the analysts are successful and effective at hunting. And making sure that MSTIC knowledge outside the company is communicated effectively to protect our customers and enable better protections across the ecosystem.


Nic Fillingham:

I have ask, is MSTIC a backronym? Did you guys get in a room and say, "How can we come up with the coolest acronym in the company, and then make it work for what we do?"


Jeremy Dallman:

There's actually a couple of others I think, that are cooler, as well though. Nonetheless, no, our GM is notorious for let's just say, obscure acronyms that translate into words. So it took a little bit of effort, it took a little bit of time, but we came up with Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center and M-S-T-I-C pronounced as MSTIC. So we worked through a few other variations, but I think this was the best one that came out and it seems to have stuck.


Nic Fillingham:

I think there needs to be an offshoot team for analytics and learning at the end. Does anyone get that-


Jeremy Dallman:

Yes, Nic. Yes, yeah.


Nic Fillingham:

Okay, good.


Jeremy Dallman:

I know a couple of people on the analytical side that might actually run with that, I might have to jot a note down.


Nic Fillingham:

There you go, you can have that one for free, no royalties from me, that's fine.


Natalia Godyla:

The next one's charged, though.


Nic Fillingham:

The next one's not free, this first one's free. So Jeremy, you're going to walk us through chapter two, the nation-state threats, it's a pretty lengthy section of the MDDR. It's also, I think, correct me here, this is the first time that we've done sort of an annual wrap-up of what Microsoft has seen on the nation-state space. I think obviously, we've had lots of blog posts and activity over the many years on the activity, that we've seen and sort of how we've contributed to it. But previous sort of security intelligence reports didn't really include a lot of nation-state activity. I mean, correct me if I'm wrong here, but is this sort of the first time that we've done an annual look back at what happened in the nation-state space?


Jeremy Dallman:

Historically, our team hasn't been very publicly outspoken and we haven't really, historically didn't spend a lot of time talking about what we've done externally. So this is definitely unprecedented and something that's brand new for our team. It's kind of along the lines of what we've been doing over the last couple of years, talking a little bit more publicly about threat actors and such. So I think this is a fantastic roll up in view of what we do. I think it goes along with our expansion of MSTIC as an organization and kind of what we've been trying to do, informing our products and customers more broadly.


Natalia Godyla:

So Jeremy, why does Microsoft do this work? Why do we partner with the industry to identify nation-state actors?


Jeremy Dallman:

Sure. I think the short version is that Microsoft customers using our products are often the target of nation-state actors. And those customers expect Microsoft security products and Microsoft to help protect them from those threats. So MSTIC tracks nation-state activities to protect our platforms, to protect our services and protect our customers from those more sophisticated threats.


Nic Fillingham:

So, Jeremy, I've got the report open here in front of me and for those playing along at home, you can download the report. It's the Microsoft Digital Defense Report @ aka.ms/digitaldefense. And if you scroll down to page 44, there is a really interesting sort of graphic here. It says, "The sample of nation-state actors and their activities." And there's a bunch of what look like sort of chemistry symbols from sort of the periodic table of elements with a lot of chemistry names and symbols. And then there's some sort of other things as well. Can you sort of walk us through, what are we looking at here? Is this actual sort of nation-state actors and sort of how they're referred to? And the names that are being used to refer to them?


Jeremy Dallman:

Across the security industry, a number of different security vendors use different code names to refer to sets of activity that are tied to certain actors or sets of activity groups. So we use code names because we can't always necessarily tie that to a specific country, or we may want to do attribution. Other security vendors will use kittens and tigers and bears, some use numbers and a variety of different code names. And at Microsoft and in MSTIC, when we were trying to figure out how we were going to do code names, we tried a bunch of different things. I think initially, there was some use of dinosaur names, that got fairly complicated and hard to pronounce fairly quickly. I think we played around with a bunch of other things. At one point, I recall we were looking at flavors on the beer flavor wheel, I'm not sure there was enough of them.


Jeremy Dallman:

So we played around with this a little bit and we ended up basically at periodic table of elements because there's not really a licensing violation there, so we didn't need to worry about that. And there was plenty of them and they were fairly unique. So we code name our actors by elements in the periodic table. And we will name an actor, an element, once we understand that actor has a unique set of activity. But on that page 44 in the report is a summary of a few of our key activity groups via their element names. And largely focusing on the four regional sets of actors that we, and most threat intelligence teams will focus on, Iran, China, North Korea, Russia.


Nic Fillingham:

And is there any sort of logic to the particular element that's chosen? I mean, I noticed that there's no hydrogen, there's no oxygen. Well, they seem to be up towards the top end of the periodic table. I've never even heard of-


Jeremy Dallman:

Yttrium?


Nic Fillingham:

Yttrium? Did Kanye West come up with that one? What's that?


Jeremy Dallman:

No, it's kind of funny because we actually have an individual on our team over in our UK office. She's responsible, she's our librarian, is kind of the role that she plays and she is responsible for naming. So I don't think there's any specific logic or pattern to who gets what name. I don't even know if our analysts have a say in picking any of the names, but our librarian is the person who basically gives these names out. And I don't think she has any set structure or method for picking the names.


Nic Fillingham:

I was really hoping you were going to say there was a periodic table of elements stapled to the wall, and then you had to start with dots.


Natalia Godyla:

Somehow, I knew I was going to be dots.


Jeremy Dallman:

You know what? I honestly would not be surprised if that was actually the case, but I can't verify that.


Nic Fillingham:

All right. Well, that's for another episode of the podcast for us to follow up on.


Natalia Godyla:

So can you provide a little bit more context on the players? What do we know about them? Their motivations? Infrastructure?


Jeremy Dallman:

Sure. So a number of these actors are pretty well known. When you talk about kind of the more popular, more widely discussed actors, it's kind of hard to not fairly rapidly, get to Strontium, which others refer to as APT28 or Fancy Bear. And this is an actor set that we believe originates in Russia.


Jeremy Dallman:

This is someone that we've... an activity set that we've talked about fairly extensively over the years of public discussion around these actors. Whether targeting individuals or campaigns or entities involved with politics. So they're probably the more well known out of Russia. I'll just kind of hit a couple in each one of these here.


Jeremy Dallman:

Phosphorus, which is an actor set that we believe is originating from Iran, also known as APT 35 and Charming Kitten. They're well known for targeting government defense industrial, especially in the region, in the Middle Eastern region. Especially fond of targeting personal email accounts and going after personal email accounts as a way to gain access to systems that they're targeting or individuals and surveil individuals. A lot of activity there tied to sanctions and research around policy, that sort of thing.


Jeremy Dallman:

In China, we have actors that more broadly, I would say are more likely to use more sophisticated technical solutions. Trying to bypass or using more sophisticated malware, but technology, supply chain targeting, targeting education and medical research. Actors like Barium known as APT 41. Manganese, which will often target communication infrastructure. They'll even go after things like satellite or defense industry or GPS navigation.


Jeremy Dallman:

And then North Korea actors like Thallium and Zinc. We'll see them targeting human rights organizations and surveilling human rights organizations that might be involved in their region geographically. But we'll also see them often targeting think tanks and governments that are involved in sanctions or policy decision-making that might be tied to the Korean peninsula.


Nic Fillingham:

Why is Strontium a nation state actor and not simply just a sort of independent group of baddies?


Jeremy Dallman:

No, that's a great question. I think the simple definition of a nation state activity group is we defined it as cyber threat activity that originates in a particular country with an intent to further national interests. So because that activity fits that parameter, there's an assumption that it's more well-funded, potentially more sophisticated. And they'll more likely going to be using what we call advanced persistent threats which is an adversary that possesses a sophisticated level of expertise and significant resources that allow it to achieve its objectives using a lot of different attack vectors. It's a combination of expertise and significant resources, adequate funding to achieve specific objectives in a particular country with intent to further the national interests.


Natalia Godyla:

And what about attack techniques? So you hinted at that in your definition. So what are some commonalities or patterns that you can identify across nation state actors that differentiate them from other threat actors?


Jeremy Dallman:

So when you think about nation state actors, and I would say in most of our threats even outside of nation state actors, you're going to see most threats start with email. I think there was a blog post we put out not too long ago that said 95% of threats start with email. Start with an email lure. From a nation state actor perspective, that's largely a technique to achieve reconnaissance. To find out or identify who the people are that they need to target to achieve the objective that they're trying to achieve. So they will do things like password spray techniques to attempt to guess log in passwords for a number of accounts tied to a specific organization that they're trying to target. They will do brute force login attempts, trying to guess the passwords and try to brute force their way into an organization. That early reconnaissance technique allows them to establish an initial foothold into an organization and also then harvest credentials.


Jeremy Dallman:

So if they can start guessing passwords and they can understand what those passwords might be, they can harvest those credentials, store those credentials and then use those in future operations to come back into that network and execute whatever operation or mission they might be trying to achieve. Once they've actually established in there, and often as a way to get a foothold into a network, they'll use malware. Malware is a very common method by nation state actors. And I would say some actors on the nation state side, because of the excessive funding that they have at their disposal, they will go above and beyond in building up particularly sophisticated malware techniques to bypass common detections by security vendors and some networks. So that's constantly a game that we're playing to understand these malware techniques. We'll also see nation state actor using very sophisticated and personalized lures.


Jeremy Dallman:

They will spend a significant amount of time. And this is something we just blogged about a couple of weeks ago, an actor named Phosphorus, which originates in Iran. We're actually using building rapport and building relationships with individuals that are tied to international policy. And by building that rapport with those people, they were actually able to send them invitations masquerading as the Munich security conference, which is a prominent international policy conference. Masquerading as the conference and trying to lure that person to their fake invitation so that they could steal their credentials. A little bit of social engineering happening there. But a nation state actor is going to have the resources and funding at their disposal to be able to build out those more sophisticated techniques. And then finally, I would say there's a lot of nation state actors that spend a significant amount of time building out capabilities, relying on common weaknesses.


Jeremy Dallman:

So when a new patch goes out, patching a security flaw within a Microsoft product, for example. A lot of actors will reverse engineer that flaw. Better understand it then use it to weaponize a new exploit. Which is why it's exceptionally important for customers to patch as quickly as they can to avoid that weakness that Microsoft is attempting to patch. That weakness becoming an entry point for a malicious actor because nation state actors will move rapidly to take advantage of that and then attempt to exploit those weaknesses where they can. So that's a couple of techniques that I would say, like I said, we dive a little bit more into in the report. But there's more in there, especially things like web shell based attacks, which we see increasing, but I'll let you go read that into the report.


Natalia Godyla:

Yes. Nice teaser for our audience. One interesting point made in the nation state section of the MDDR was the downstream effect. So if I understand it correctly, the nation states will pursue these techniques and then eventually other actors will pick them up. So how does that happen if they are these sophisticated groups that are leveraging, like you said, more complicated malware? Is it that the other attackers use simplified versions of it, or as it's in the wild they get more exposure and are educated on that strain of malware and then are able to use it? So what does the process look like from nation state actor using these attack types to another attacker in the wild?


Jeremy Dallman:

Yeah, I think you nailed it there with the second example you gave. Because that's typically what happens is once this exploit gets out in the wild it's not just Microsoft watching for these more sophisticated threats. All of the other actors out there, whether they're criminal organizations or individual hackers, whoever it might be. There's a whole ecosystem of people out there that are watching for these threats to evolve and looking for new techniques. So when a nation state actor might have a particularly sophisticated attack that goes out, there's any number of people who will pick up and discover that through various security researchers in the ecosystem. And then they will immediately go do exactly what we do, which is reverse engineer that, understand how it works. And then you'll see variants come out. You look at things like the VPN exploits that came out in mid 2019.


Jeremy Dallman:

Those VPN exploits were picked up and used by an actor that we call Manganese to steal credentials and gain access to victim networks, using VPN infrastructure and holes in unpatched systems on VPN networks. So when you think about a world, the world we live in right now, where everybody's working remote. And global enterprise IT departments are relying on VPNs to improve connectivity and security for their systems. If that VPN infrastructure is not updated in its patching, actors like Manganese were taking advantage of that patch, reverse engineering it, and then going out to find VPN infrastructure that hadn't been patched and then exploiting it to gain access to those networks. Well, what we've seen subsequently is everybody else saw the technique and realized, hey, VPN, everybody's using those right now. And they started taking that and tweaking the same technique. And now those exploits have become, unfortunately become fairly commonplace.


Nic Fillingham:

Jeremy, you said that one of the characteristics of a nation state group is the sophistication in their techniques. And so I sort of have to ask, do we know if many of these groups, any of these groups are utilizing AI machine learning? If so, how?


Jeremy Dallman:

We don't have conclusive evidence I don't think. I mean, short of us walking into their infrastructure and taking pictures of systems, which isn't something we do. But I think there's enough-


Nic Fillingham:

Why not?


Jeremy Dallman:

... indicators.


Nic Fillingham:

That sounds like a great idea. I'd make that a priority.


Jeremy Dallman:

That would definitely make our jobs a lot more interesting. I would say that we've seen indication of nation state actors starting to take advantage of whether it's machine learning or AI. It's unclear. They're starting to take advantage of more sophisticated techniques in those directions. When you think about a password spray campaign, where you are trying to attempt to guess the passwords for a number of different accounts across one organization, that takes a certain amount of compute, a certain amount of effort and a certain amount of automation that can be enabled. But if you take that and you expand it into something like we blogged about from Strontium in September, for example. We saw Strontium attempting to password spray a number of organizations, and they were spearfishing hundreds of organizations with thousands of password guesses in very short periods of time.


Jeremy Dallman:

And then on top of that they were using thousands of IP addresses and anonymization platforms to obfuscate their activity. So when you think about the complexity of that operation and the speed at which they were able to execute it, it would make sense that actors like that are starting to take advantage of machine learning or some automation capabilities on the backend to increase the speed, the effectiveness and the scope of their operations.


Natalia Godyla:

I think all of this is leading up to what is Microsoft doing? So how are we disrupting nation state threats today?


Jeremy Dallman:

So we do a number of different things. I would say probably the best and most effective way is using Microsoft's voice to raise awareness of these activities. And that comes in a number of different ways. We have the blog posts that we put out. The Microsoft On The Issues blog puts on a lot of interesting content that's derived from MSTIC research. And what that does is it kind of helps drive that broad discussion around what can be done to combat malicious nation state activity against governments, academia, social organizations, individuals. A lot of nation states like to target your personal email accounts, but we still defend those private email accounts because whether it's Outlook or a personal email account, that's something that we also have to protect our customers who might be getting attacked through that type of a vector. I would say probably one of the more interesting ways has been on the legal side.


Jeremy Dallman:

So one of our unique ways to target nation state actors has been partnering with our colleagues in the Digital Crimes Unit here at Microsoft. And the Digital Crimes Unit is responsible for pulling together a lot of the evidentiary information and understanding the threats for a legal perspective. And then they take that to courts and use litigation to seize domains and other assets that are being used by these nation state actors. And then actually through legal action shutting down those attack vectors. And then from time to time, we'll also, if we have sufficient information to warrant one time action to delete or shut down infrastructure or assets that are associated with the nation state actor. We'll also take those proactive measures against that infrastructure to basically eliminate visibility or capability on an actor and forcing them to go rebuild that infrastructure. They will typically rollover infrastructure and start rebuilding and come back later.


Jeremy Dallman:

So that's not necessarily a whack-a-mole game we want to get into in a lot of cases, but if it's for the protection of our customers, or if we feel it's particularly effective, that is something that we'll do as well. So that's a variety of a few ways. Obviously the one that I didn't touch on is probably the most obvious one, is leveraging our own technology and using all the knowledge that mystic collects about these threats, these actors, their tactics, their techniques and translating those into detections. Transforming and putting those into blocks and protections that show up in our security products and protect our customers in their environments. And the whole objective there has always been to make sure that we're implementing relevant, accurate and actionable threat intelligence for our customers.


Nic Fillingham:

Where can folks go apart from reading the MDDR? Where can they go for more information on how to protect themselves against a nation state attacks if they find themselves in one of these targeted industries?


Jeremy Dallman:

So we don't have a MSTIC page. I would say in the MDDR,


Jeremy Dallman:

We definitely have a section at the end of the Nation-States Reference called comprehensive protections required and it walks through to defensive positions that you can take, the strategies that you can enable there. And then at the end of the digital defense report, we have what are called actionable learnings. And I would recommend you go there and dive into that section as well. And every time MSTIC puts out a blog post, we will always have something at the bottom that are generalized recommendations also. So if we put out a technical blog posts that walks through the techniques of gadolinium or strontium, we will always have at the bottom the specific techniques for that threat that would help you mitigate or protect yourself from that threat. So always watch for those blog posts and then probably for the digital defense report. Go out and look at the actionable learnings. That's probably the best place to start.


Nic Fillingham:

Hey, Jeremy. Thank you so much for your time. This has been a fascinating conversation. We've really only scratched the surface of that nation-state threat section of the MDDR report. So if you enjoyed this conversation, would like to learn more head to aka.ms/digitaldefense and download the report, and there's lots more detail and lots more articles linked too, that you can read to learn more about this space. Jeremy Dallman, thank you so much.


Jeremy Dallman:

This was fun. Thanks for having me guys.


Natalia Godyla:

And now let's meet an expert in the Microsoft security team to learn more about the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the humans creating AI and tech at Microsoft. Today we are joined by Randy Treit. Thank you, Randy, for being here.


Randy Treit:

I'm happy to be here. Thanks for having me.


Natalia Godyla:

Great. Well, let's kick things off by chatting a little bit about what you do. So what's your role at Microsoft? What does your day to day look like?


Randy Treit:

My title is principal security researcher. I'm on the Defender endpoint team. So focused mainly on detecting new threats that we haven't seen before. Protecting patient zero is a big focus of mine. Recently I've started looking into some new kinds of attacks using OAuth phishing. So that's sort of my current main focus area, but I've done a lot in the cloud protection. I've been on the team forever. So I've worn a lot of hats and done a lot of roles.


Natalia Godyla:

So what were some of the other roles that you've been at at Microsoft? What was the first one that brought you to Microsoft?


Randy Treit:

I've been at Microsoft 20 years. I started in the exchange team and worked on some mobility stuff. But pretty quickly... So I started in 2000. In 2003, I joined the antivirus team, which was brand new at Microsoft. Really Microsoft's first foray into trying to get serious about the antivirus space. And I joined as a program manager, actually. So security research is a fairly new role for me, but was basically worked on the backend infrastructure for the antivirus platform in the early days. And that was the days of worms running rampant everywhere you had SQL Slammer, MSBlast, Sasser worm, Code Red, Nimda. All the greatest hits of when security was a very dark, dark time at Microsoft. And that's when I started and then have done a ton of stuff since then. So I worked on the antivirus engine as a PM and from the engineering side. Eventually moved on to do a lot of work with our cloud protection system in the last period. And then, about two years ago, I guess I moved from engineering side into security research.


Natalia Godyla:

So were you sold on security after being part of the AV team? Was that what did it for you?


Randy Treit:

Our customers, Microsoft's reputation, friends and family, everybody was just getting hammered by security threats at the time. And I really wanted to do something about that. Working on exchange was fascinating from a technical perspective, but getting into the security space where there was a real opportunity to go to battle against the bad guys and try and really protect. I'm sure we all, back in those days, this is mid-2000s, early 2000s, had friends and family who got hit by a worm or a virus or a scam. And so it was very motivating for me to get into a place where I could do something about that. And that's sort of driven me ever since. And I've done a few other forays into some stuff, like I took a break from security for about two years. Around 2012, went and worked on Xbox for the Xbox One when that was getting released and learned a ton about services. And that was a good break, but I couldn't stay away from the security space.


Nic Fillingham:

Randy, I'd love to come back to that first gig of yours working in the anti-malware space. So for whatever reason, I actually went down a rabbit hole recently trying to better understand the history of Defender. It sounds like you were there at its sort of inception. My understanding is that the first anti-malware, antivirus client, first of all, it wasn't built into the OS. It was a download. And was it something that we built in-house or was it an acquisition? Was it a combination? Do you know the history? Were you there for that?


Randy Treit:

Yeah. So I was the third PM hired into the antivirus team and it was right after the decision to acquire RAV from a Romanian company called Gecad. And so I started on a Monday and on Wednesday all of the Romanian developers showed up, many who are still on the team today. Marty Marinescu, who was the lead developer of the engine, is still the lead architect on the antivirus engine. And I remember, it was an interesting cultural experience, because they all came in and the custom in Romania was that you would, every morning, go to everybody's office and shake their hand and greet them in the morning. And so that was-


Nic Fillingham:

That's awesome!


Randy Treit:

Yeah, it was great. Unfortunately they, I think, became acclimatized to the not as polite American way of doing things. That sort of died out after a few weeks. But yeah, it was an acquisition and we didn't actually know what we were going to do with it at the time. So there was always a desire bring the protection capability into the operating system, but that's a big rock to lift and eventually we got there with Defender in the interim. It started out as, like you said, a download. So the initial... For years we've had the malicious software removal tool that comes out every patch Tuesday and runs on everybody's machine to clean up the ecosystem of malware.


Randy Treit:

But before that it was actually the very first release of the same engine that runs in Defender today, was something called Blast Clean. It was a Blaster removal tool to remove the Blaster worm. And we released that in late 2004. I have some stories about testing it out on my home machine and actually infecting it. And my kids not being able to play Magic School Bus the next day, and getting a call at the office. So those were fun times.


Nic Fillingham:

Can you elaborate on that? Is that the story? Is there more to it?


Randy Treit:

So what happened was the Blaster worm, there was a particular patch that if you weren't patched, it would infect your computer within a few seconds of being online. And so we had the early builds... This was December, heading into Christmas season in 2004. And I decided, well, I've got my computer at home. I'll just uninstall the patch and let it get infected. And then I will run our removal tool and make sure that it works. It was not the brightest thing to do. Don't do this at home kind of thing. I was younger and more eager to just do crazy stuff that I would probably be a little more careful these days, but I did it. I uninstalled the patch. The machine got infected. Rebooted, which was part of the infection.


Randy Treit:

And then it came up and I ran our removal tool and it worked great and then I decided to try it again. So for those who may remember the Blaster worm, there was another worm called Nachi that somebody else had written and released, exploiting the same vulnerability. And Nachi tried to remove Blaster and then patch your computer. And so our tool removed both of those. And what happened, in my case, was the machine got infected with Nachi, but it was a copy of the Nachi worm, that had itself been infected with a file infecting virus, which infected all the executables is on my machine and then basically bricked it and made it so it wouldn't boot.


Nic Fillingham:

I know that I got infected with Blaster worm. I couldn't remember that because I got in big trouble from my dad.


Randy Treit:

Oh, yeah.


Nic Fillingham:

But I sort of can't remember what it did. I know that it stopped... No one could use the computer. It just completely... The computer was unusable, but can you just kind of bring us down memory lane? If you were infected by Blaster worm, what actually happened?


Randy Treit:

It was not a worm that was exfiltrating data off your machine. Now it's all about money and these crime groups trying to exploit the ecosystem with Ransomware and that kind of thing. It was really just designed to spread. So it was purely, as I recall and if I'm remembering correctly, but it would just try and infect... It would infect your machine and your machine should actually be able to run with the infection. Although like in my case, and maybe in yours, if it got infected with a version that was itself infected with something else, it would just brick the machine. Like if there was a file infector, which is what I experienced with the Nachi worm. But essentially it would just try and spread to other machines that were unpatched, randomly spraying IP addresses trying to find another machine that had the vulnerability.


Natalia Godyla:

So you mentioned that, right now, part of your role is to focus on protecting patient zero. So how is that different than some of the work you've done in the past? And what's different about focusing on patient zero in specific?


Randy Treit:

The attackers could guarantee that they could release something into the wild that wasn't detected because it wasn't detected by current signatures. So before we had cloud protection, you just had the heuristics and signatures that were on disc in these virus definition updates that computers would download periodically. Typically, a few times a day. So you couldn't really protect patient zero because the attackers would always be able to tweak their malware until they saw from scanning with, say, the virus signatures that you weren't going to be able to detect it. And then they would release it. And then the clock starts ticking at that point. And you have a certain amount of time before, say, a customer reports that to Microsoft, or we discover that a sample from some sort of honeypot, or whatever.


Randy Treit:

And then now you have, okay, we need to quickly add a signature and ship that out to the customers. So the cloud has been a real game changer because it gives us an opportunity to run all these machine learning models in real time, in milliseconds to make an evaluation of a file that we've never seen before and decide that it's malicious and then block it. That has been a huge game changer in terms of protection capability and really shrinking that time to protection to milliseconds from where it used to take days and hours to get a signature out.


Nic Fillingham:

And how do you measure the false positive rate? If there is one, in that sort of protecting patient zero. How do you measure and then how do you find that balance between a couple of false positives, which would be, probably, annoying. But do you allow yourself a few of those to slip through in order to genuinely protect patient zero? Or are the models so good now that the false positives are extremely rare?


Randy Treit:

Oh, well, we're always going to have some false positives. ML is not perfect and human expert rules and human logic is not perfect. So there always will be false positives. We have certain thresholds that we try and keep our rules under, or that are basically lines in the sand that, hey, in order to release a new, say, detection rule in our cloud protection infrastructure, it has to run in an experimental period for a certain amount of time. Typically, even a few weeks while we gather all the data on what it would have blocked on, and then we can evaluate, is it having a nice, low, false, positive rate? So there are certain thresholds that we need to make sure all those rules are running under.


Randy Treit:

And then we have guard rails to make sure that if all of a sudden a rule or an ML model starts... Something changes under the hood and it starts having too high of a false positive rate, then we have systems to alert and automatically disable things until somebody goes and investigates and that kind of thing. So we're definitely very cognizant of trying to find that balance between blocking the bad stuff, but not causing too many false positives and causing pain and headache for our customers.


Nic Fillingham:

And does your team monitor those metrics? Is that what your team, as part of looking after patient zero, is that one of the things that you track day to day, or is that another part of the org?


Randy Treit:

Yeah, it's definitely our team. There are other kind of data science focused people who will do a lot of the infrastructure work to support running those metrics. But our team looks... That's creating the cloud rules and some of that capability. We'll work on writing watchdogs and guardrails and alerts and things like that. Just as part of the end to end pipeline of creating that protection.


Nic Fillingham:

What are some of those tools that you use day in, day out, Randy? When you start your day, where are you going to? Do have some sort of team dashboard, or are you going into some kind of Azure ML service? Yeah, what's in your toolbox?


Randy Treit:

So we definitely have our dashboards and tools that are the sort of go-to place for, oh, you want to see the trend of detections over time, and these kinds of things and monitor your rules and whatnot. I tend to go a lot deeper into the actual data. So I'm a big fan of Jupyter notebooks and pandas on Python. I've done a bunch of stuff in R, in the last couple of years. Lately I've been using Databricks notebooks, which are fantastic because it basically lets you do big data. Sorry. I don't know if you're familiar with the notebook type environment, but it's essentially a combination of marked down notes and graphs and visualizations. Nick, I know you've seen some of my heat maps that I like to generate, showing where we're seeing particular attacks happening globally.


Randy Treit:

That's all done in this notebook environment where you have this data under the hood. You can write Python code or R or Scala, and then, to process the data, and then not the other, it'll spit out a beautiful global heat map or graphs or data. And you can just sort of have instant querying at your fingertips. So typically, my day starts with usually firing up some kind of a notebook, pulling in some data.


Randy Treit:

I'm often looking for gaps, so where are we not doing well. So what did we see over the last... Let me find files that we're now blocking in the cloud, because our cloud learned that these are malicious, but maybe we miss patient zero and maybe we missed the first 25 encounters. Now, then we started blocking. Oh, let me figure out what happened there. Why didn't we block? How do we close that gap?


Randy Treit:

My day job, I would say, is really trying to find protection gaps where we're not doing a good job and figure out how we close them. They go actually implement something to close those gaps. I tend to work with Python mostly day-to-day in a Jupyter Notebook or more recently, these Databricks Notebook type environment. I love it. Compared to the old days of you're running just SQL queries against a small set of SQL data, the things you can do with these, I would say, data scientist type tools like Jupyter Notebooks is very freeing. I guess that's how I would put it.


Nic Fillingham:

Randy, what's flagging those gaps? So, you said you look for gaps. Is that just your experience, your expertise, you know what you're looking at when you see data, when you see dashboards, when you see reports; or are there a combination of processes that are specifically looking for a detection that picks something up and then went backwards in time and realized that "Oh, here are some historical detections that we actually miss"? How do you find gaps? I think that's the question.


Randy Treit:

It's a combination of manual spelunking on into the data and going off intuition or things I've done before, but we do have automation that will flag certain events. We have watchdogs and other rules that researchers write. In my mail inbox in the morning, often, I will have a list of these potential misses where maybe we missed detection on the first patient 0 through 10, and then we started blocking. So, I might go and look at, "Oh, let me dig into that a little bit and find out what happened there." So, in some cases, it might be that we have a malware probability threshold that we were looking forward to say from an ML model that says, "Oh, block if the probability is 0.95. So, 95% probability that this file is malware."


Randy Treit:

Going into the data in telemetry, I might see that we didn't block because the probability was 0.93. So, one of the things I would look into then, oh, can we reduce that probability that we're looking forward to block from that 0.95 threshold to 0.93? Maybe code up something to model that or to run for a few days in experimental audit mode and see, "Does that lower threshold still meet our false positive targets?" If that's looking good, we can turn that on live, something like that.


Natalia Godyla:

This is a bit of a deviation, but it would be great to understand, "What kind of context do you bring to this role from previous jobs? What were you studying in school? What did you intend to do? What were your jobs prior to Microsoft, and how do you use them in your day-to-day?"


Randy Treit:

Yeah, that's a great question. So, I was actually studying Philosophy in Pacific Lutheran University down in Tacoma. I'm a native Washingtonian. So, Microsoft was right in my backyard. It was basically the height of the dotcom boom and the end of the '90s. I had finished up the Philosophy Program at PLU and was planning to become a philosophy professor but needed to get a job. In the interim, I was married. We had a young child, another one on the way. So, I decided to take a break from school, get a job. I started as a technical writer actually at Microsoft on the Exchange Team. I think you talked to Emily Hacker. I listened to the interview and learned that she was also started as a technical writer. So, that was pretty cool.


Randy Treit:

And then worked in exchange for a few years before I got asked about joining this newly formed antivirus team. I made the jump there. I actually never finished my four-year degree. So, I made a plan with my advisor. I finished the philosophy program, but still had some general university stuff to finish up. But once I started at Microsoft, I was just off and running and never looked back. So, it's been an interesting journey. Sometimes I definitely suffer from, I would say, imposter syndrome here and there, where I spent a lot of time writing code day-to-day, but I've never been formally trained in computer science. It's all been self-taught or picked up on the job thing.


Randy Treit:

When I moved from a program management and the engineering side into research, I came without the deep reverse engineering background that a lot of my colleagues had. So, that was something that I felt like, "Oh, this is going to be hard for me to pick up." Sometimes that lack of a formal academic background, I feel like it was a bit of a chip on my shoulder, but I just try and do the best I can and go from there.


Nic Fillingham:

Talk a bit about philosophy, and then I'd love for you to talk about how and if you use it in your job today.


Randy Treit:

Yeah. So, I was not a good student in high school. So, I barely graduated high school with a very low GPA. So, when I decided to finally get my act together and go back to school, I started at a community college. I needed to take English 101 just as part of every college requirement. So, the English 101 class I took was a combined English 101 and Philosophy taught by two professors who were husband and wife. Debbie Kuder, the wife taught the English portion, and then her husband, John taught the Philosophy portion. It was basically an amazing class. My identical twin brother, who also works at Microsoft by the way, was in the same class with me. We both just fell in love with philosophy.


Randy Treit:

I think, I just love the idea of open-ended questions that had no answers. So, philosophy, I think differentiated from the sciences, it's dealing with questions that will never actually be answered, like what is beauty and what is a good argument? There's always going to be different opinions. Just the idea of these big open-ended unsolvable questions, but the people will keep getting closer and closer to the truth hopefully over time, I just fell in love with that. In terms of applying philosophy at work, I think the biggest thing that I got out of studying philosophy in undergraduate school at PLU was the rigorous approach to problem solving. So, even though you have these big open-ended problems, like I said, there probably are never going to get answered.


Randy Treit:

The approach of philosophical approach is very rigorous and requires incredibly good communication skills to be able to communicate your ideas effectively and, in your arguments, cogently. That, I think, has stood me in extremely good stead in my career. I think that's one of the things that I bring to the table. I think someone like Emily, you mentioned with the journalism background, it's just that ability to communicate. There's so many brilliant people who work in the technical field, but who are unfortunately not great communicators. Often, they need someone to help translate what their brilliant ideas into something that other people can actually understand what they're aiming at.


Randy Treit:

That's something that I think I've been able to do fairly successfully. Just that ability to really rigorously attack a problem and break it down into small components, which I think comes from some of that training I think has also done a great job or has stood being a good stead with malware analysis and threat analysis and that kind of thing.


Natalia Godyla:

So, I know Nic is dying for me to ask this, but you said you had an identical twin, you just dropped it in there casually that works at Microsoft. Do you guys pull pranks together. Have you done it as kids? Do you do it at Microsoft?


Randy Treit:

You have no idea. So, Mike actually worked on the antivirus team at the same time as I did. So, he joined Microsoft before me and has worked on NT 5, which became Windows 2000 and is a brilliant dev, but he was actually one of my devs and I was his PM working on the antivirus. This is probably mid-2000s. For a number of years, we were on the same team. And then he went off to Intune. But I mean, the amount of confusion we caused when people would walk into meetings or even just down the hall, it was quite fun. I'm sure we played some pranks. It's been great.


Randy Treit:

There was one time very early on, we weren't on the same team at that point, where he was in my office over an exchange. He had come over to grab a coffee. He was across the street. I had gone down to get a refill or use the restroom or something. This guy, David came in and started talking to Mike, like he was me, "Hey, Randy, I've got some questions about this thing." Mike was like, "Oh, I'm not Randy." David looked at him and just shook his head and said, "So, anyway, I've got questions. Do you know about this?" Mike's like, "No, I'm not Randy." He looked at him and he said, "wait, are you serious?" So, we've had those kinds of incidents.


Randy Treit:

Mike is my go-to person whenever I get stuck on a programming problem, because he's a brilliant programmer. So, I'm constantly sending him my code and saying, "Hey, I'm struggling with this." He usually responds with something like, "What is this monstrosity?", and things like that since I'm not nearly the coder that he is.


Natalia Godyla:

Subtle.


Nic Fillingham:

Who's the older twin by a fraction of a second or a minute?


Randy Treit:

Mike's four minutes older than I am.


Nic Fillingham:

I love it that your prank was actually a wholesome misunderstanding, an unintentional wholesome misunderstanding. I was typing frantically with Natalia, trying to see if there was some example, where you each went to the other's annual review and just tried to just say ludicrous things to the manager to see when they caught on, but no.


Randy Treit:

No, I haven't done too much of that at work. Although, I mean, in high school, he would skip class and I would go to his art class, because I had a girlfriend who was in the same class. One day, I got called up to make a presentation, the person they thought I was Mike. I was completely unprepared and I just fumbled my way through it. I learned that, "Oh, that didn't work out the way I was hoping it would." I'll throw this out there. My younger brother also works at Microsoft. He is a producer on Xbox video stuff. So, there's a bunch of us running around.


Nic Fillingham:

How many other Treits are there?


Randy Treit:

My sister, Tammy worked on Exchange at the same time I did back in the day. There are six of us Treit siblings. I guess four of us have worked at Microsoft. My younger sister is a doctor in Seattle, and my older sister is a teacher in Germany.


Natalia Godyla:

Thank you, Randy. We're happy to have you at Microsoft. Happy to have two-thirds of your family at Microsoft here, and we'll definitely love to have you back.


Randy Treit:

That was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the conversation.


Natalia Godyla:

Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security from research to artificial intelligence. Keep an eye out for our next episode.


Nic Fillingham:

Don't forget to tweet us, @msftsecurity, or email us at securityunlocked@microsoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on a future episode. Until then, stay safe.


Natalia Godyla:

Stay secure.

More Episodes

4/7/2021

The Language of Cybercrime

Ep. 22
How many languages do you speak?The average person only speaks oneor twolanguages, and for most people that’s plentybecause even as communities arebecoming more global, languages are still very much tied to geographic boundaries.Butwhat happens when you go on the internet where those regions don’t exist the same way they do in real life?Because the internet connects people from every corner of the world, cybercriminals canperpetratescamsin countriesthousands of miles away. So how doorganizationslike Microsoft’s Digital Crime Unit combatcybercrimewhen they don’t even speak the language of the perpetrators?On today’s episode ofSecurity Unlocked, hostsNic FillinghamandNataliaGodylasit down withPeterAnaman,Principal Investigator on the Digital Crimes Unit,to discusshowPeterlooks at digital crimes inavery interconnected world and how language and culture play into the crimes being committed, who’s behind them, and how to stop them.In This Episode, You Will Learn:• Some of the tools the Digital Crime Unit at Microsoft uses to catch criminals.• How language and culturalfactors into cyber crime• Whycyber crimehas been onthe rise since Covid beganSome Questions We Ask:• How has understanding a specific culture helped crack a case?• How does a lawyer who served as an officer in the French Army wind up working at Microsoft?• Are there best practices for content creators to stay safe fromcyber crime?ResourcesPeterAnaman’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/anamanp/NicFillingham’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicfill/NataliaGodyla’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliagodyla/Microsoft Security Bloghttps://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/Transcript[Full transcript can be found at https://aka.ms/SecurityUnlockedEp22]Nic:(music)Nic:Hello and welcome to Security Unlocked. A new podcast from Microsoft where we unlock insights from the latest in news and research from across Microsoft's Security Engineering and Operations Teams. I'm Nic Fillingham.Natalia:And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories from Microsoft's Security. Deep dive into the newest threat intel, research and data science.Nic:And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft Security.Natalia:And now, let's unlock the pod.Natalia:Hello, Nic. How is it going?Nic:Hello, Natalia. I'm very well, thank you. I'm very excited for today's episode. We talk with Peter Anaman, who is a return guest. Uh, he was on an earlier episode where we talked about business email compromise and some of the findings in the 2020 Microsoft Digital Defense Report. And Peter had such great stories that he shared with us in that conversation, that we thought let's bring him back. And let's, let's get the full picture. And wow, did we cover some topics in this conversation. I don't even know where to begin. How would, what's your TLDR for this one, Natalia?Natalia:Well, whenever your friends or family think about cyber security, this is it. One of the stories that really stuck out to me is, Peter went undercover, and has actually gone undercover multiple times, but in this one instance he used the cultural context from his family history, as well as the languages that he knows to gain trust with a bad actor group and catch them out. It's incredible. He speaks so many languages and he told so many stories about how he applies that to his day-to-day work in such interesting ways.Nic:Yeah, I love, for those of you who listened to the podcast, Peter really illustrates how knowledge of multiple cultures, knowledge of multiple languages, understanding how those cultures and languages can sort of intersect and ebb and flow. Peter has used that as powerful tools in his career. I think it's fascinating to hear those examples. Other listeners of the podcast who, who do have more than one language, who do understand and have experience across multiple cultures, maybe oughta see some, uh, some interesting opportunities for themselves in, in, in cyber security maybe moving forward.Nic:I also thought it was fascinating to hear Peter talk about working to try and get funds and sort of treasures and I think gold, l-literal gold that was taken during the second world war. And getting them back to it's original owner. Sort of like, a repatriation effort. As you say, Natalia, these are all things that I think our friends and family think of when they hear the words cyber security. Oh, I'm in cyber security. I'm an investigator in cyber security. And they have this sort of, visions, these Hollywood visions. Nic:This is, that's Peter. That's what he's done. And he's, he talk about it in his episode. It's a great episode.Natalia:And with that, on with the pod.Nic:On with the pod. Nic:(music)Natalia:Welcome back to Security Unlocked, Peter Anaman.Peter:Thank you very much. Thanks for having me back.Natalia:Well, it was a pleasure to talk to you, first time around. So I'm really excited for the second conversation. And in this conversation we really love to chat about your career in cyber security. How you got here? Um, what you're doing? So let's kick it off with a little bit of a refresher for the audience.Natalia:What do you do at Microsoft and what does your day-to-day look like?Peter:So in Microsoft, I work within the legal department. Within a group called the Digital Crimes Unit. We are a team of lawyers, investigators and analysts who look at protecting our customers and our online services from, um, organized crime or attacks against the system. And so we, we bring, for example, civil and criminal referrals in order to do that action. On a day-by-day basis, it's very, very varied. I focus more on business email compromise present with some, with some assistance on ransomware attacks and looking at the depths and the affiliates there. As well as looking at some attacks against the infrastructure based on automated systems. Peter:So it's kind of varied. So on a day, I could, for example, be running some crystal queries or some specialized database queries in order to look for patterns in unauthorized or illegal activity taking place in order to quickly protect our customers. At the same time, I have to prepare reports. So there's a lot of report writing just to make sure that we can articulate the evidence that we have. And to ensure we respect privacy and all the other rules, you know, when we present the data.Peter:And also, in addition to that, uh, big part of it is actually learning. So I take my time to look at trends of what's going on. Learn new skills in order to know that I can adapt and automate some of the processes I do.Nic:Peter, as someone with an accent, uh, I'm always intrigued by other people's accents. May I inquire as to your accent, sir. Um, I'm hearing, I think I'm hearing like, British. I'm hearing French. There's other things there.Peter:(laughs)Nic:Would you elaborate for us?Peter:Yes, of course. Of course. Oh so, I was born in Ghana, West Africa and spent my youth there. And later on went to the UK where I learned that, I had to have elocution lessons to speak like the queen. And so I had lesson and my accent became British. So but at the same time, I'm actually a French national. Um, I've been in the French army as an officer. And so, that's where the French part is. And throughout, I've lived in different countries doing for work. Uh, so I've learned a bit of German, a bit of Spanish on the way.Nic:I, I actually cheated. I looked at your, um, LinkedIn profile and I see you have six languages listed.Peter:Yes.Nic:The two, the two that you didn't mention, I am embarrassingly ignorant of Fante? And T-Twi, Twi? What are they?Peter:Twi and Fante are two of the languages that are spoken in Ghana. They're local languages. And so growing up, I always had that around me. When I went to my father's village where his, we communicate in that language. English is kind of the National Language but within the country, people really speak their own languages. So I've ticked it off now. Can I speak fluently in, in it? No, I've been away for too long. But if you put me there, I would understand everything they're saying. Nic:What are the roots of those two languages? Are they related at all? Or are they completely separate?Peter:They are related but one, one person cannot always understand the other. If you look more broadly, you look at for example, the African continent all are, you'll find that there are over, from what we understand, over, what was it? 2,000 languages are spoken on the continent. So sometimes a person, say on the east coast doesn't understand the person in the west coast, you know. And, and it's fascinating because, you know, when we look at cyber crime, we are facing a global environment. Which is actually pretty carved out, right? The physical world is still pretty segmented.Peter:And so when, for example, investigating some crimes taking place in Nigeria, well they speak pidgin English. And so we have to try and adapt to that to understand, what do they really mean when they say, X or Y? And so, you know, it kind of opens our mind at, as we're doing the investigations. So we have to really try and understand the local reality because the internet is not just one place. And I think, you know, working for, you know, Microsoft and with such an amazing diverse team, we've been able to share knowledge.Peter:So for example, in the case I mentioned, I went to my colleague in Lagos, Abuja. He went, oh, that's what it means. And we're like, okay great. That one makes a lot more sense. And so we can move on. So we have this kind of richness in the team that allows us to lean on each other and, you know, sort of drive impact. But yeah, language is very important. (laughs)Natalia:I was gonna ask, do you have any interesting examples in which the culture was really important to cracking in the case or understanding a specific part of a case that you were working?Peter:Yes. So there was one case I worked on earlier on which was in Lithuania. And in Lithuania, for a very long time, this group had been under investigation but they were very good at their Op Sec and used some, uh, different types of encryption and obsolete, obsolete communication to hide themselves. But what I learned from the chats and when I was, this was in an IRC, it started in IRC channels and then moved out of there afterwards. But I noticed that there was a lot of Italy. There was a lot of Italian references. And my grandfather was Sicilian so I've spent time in Italy. So I kind of understood that they traveled to Italy.Peter:So in part of the persona, I made reference to Sicily. And I just said, you know, that's where my grandfather's from. And this, didn't give a name obviously, but it kind of brought them closer, right? Because like, oh, yeah we, we get it. And after about two, three months, I was able to get them to send me pictures of them going on vacation in Italy. And unfortunately for them, the picture had geo-location on it. And also, we were able to blow it up to get the background of where they were in the airport and using the camera from the airport, we were able to identify who they were. And then go back to the passport, find their path and they got arrested a few weeks later. Peter:So but to get that picture, to get that inner information required a kind of, trust that was being built in the virtual world and that comes from trying to understand the culture. By teasing out, asking questions about who are you and what do you like. So that's just one example.Nic:N-no pressure in answering this question and we'll even, we'll even cut it out of the edit if it's one you don't wanna go with.Peter:(laughs) Sure.Nic:If you're good with it. But um, uh, I heard you now talk about personas and identities and y-you just sort of hinted at it in the answer to the previous question. It sounds like some of the work that you have done in the past has been about creating and adopting personas in order to go and learn more information about bad actors and groups out there in, uh, in cyber land. Is that accurate and are you able to talk about what that role and that sort of, that work look like, when you're performing it?Peter:Yeah. So before you have Peter:...persona, you have to understand where that persona's gonna be acted, right?Peter:And I'll give you an, an example of a story. Once I had to go to LA to give a presentation and when I got to the airport I got a cab. And in the cab I looked at the guy's, the license plate of the, of the person. And I said, I bet you, I can guess, which country you were born in. He was like, an African American kind of person. He goes, impossible. No one has guessed it, you will never know. I was, all right. Are you ready? You're from Ghana. And his mind was blown. He was like, how, how did you pin that to one country? I was like, well, in your name, you have Kwesi. And I know if you're born in a country, in Ghana and have Kwesi, it means you're born on a Sunday. So that fact that you have your, that name there, that means you were born from Ghana. He goes, you are right. And so that was that. Peter:And I said, I miss some food, the cuisine from my, from, from Ghana. And he goes, oh, I know a great place. It's in Compton. I said, go. Uh, when? So I went into my restroom, showered, go ready, try to g-got into a taxi and he goes, I'm not going into Compton. I was like, well, why not? I wanna go to that restaurant. And he goes, oh, no, no, no. I'm going to get robbed or something bad is going to happen to me. I was like, but it- By the way, he left, he went, I had a great meal. Afterwards, I spent two hours in the restaurant 'cause no taxi would come and pick me up. And eventually, the waitress took me to a local casino. And I got a cab there and I got back.Peter:Where, where I'm going with this story is about the environment. I didn't know what Compton meant, right? So if I created a persona that went there that didn't know the environment, they would not succeed. They would stick out like a sore thumb. They would, they would fail. So the first idea, is always to understand what are the different protocols.Peter:If I'm looking at, for example, FTP or IRC, the different peer-to-peer networks. Or I'm looking at NNTP and the old internet, you know. All of those work, you need different tools to work there. Different ways to collect evidence and different breadcrumbs you could leave that you need to know it may be needed. Because when you're there, you're there, right? And it's, you're leaving, you're leaving a mark. Also some people say, use proxies. Well, the problem with proxies that someone could know you got a proxy on. Because well, there's lots of systems out there. So it's about using the system. Understanding how it's interconnected so that when you show up, you show up without too much suspicion.Peter:The other thing I learned is that the personas have to, have to be kind of, sad. 'Cause what I found is that when they were a bit sad, like, I'm happy with your work and things like that. What I found, that's me, right? I found that people were more interested because people are kind by nature, right? And so when they see that you're sad, they're more likely to communicate with you. While, while if you're too confident, I can do everything. They're like, uh, no, that person. Peter:So I try to like, psychologically look at ways to make the person as real as possible, based on my experience, right, because if it was based on me, I would be called out. Because I will be inventing a character that's, was not real. If you try to give me a trick question, because it's based on me, the answer's gonna be the same. I've got, the persona is me. It's just different. And so that's how I took my time to understand it. I spend a lot of time learning the internet, the protocols, you know, how does P2P actually work. When I, going to an IRC channel or when I'm looking at the peer-to-peer network and looking at the net flow. So the data which is passing from my computer upload. What other information is flowing. Peter:Because if I can see it, they can see it, right? And at the same time I have to have the tools. So I was very fortunate to have, for example, some tools that can switch my IP address with any country, like, every minute. So I could really change personas and change location really rapidly and no one would know better 'cause I'm using different personas in different contexts, right?Peter:Now, I never lie. One of, one of the clear things is that you never, I never try and do anything illegal because I have to assume that law enforcement is on the other side. And that's not what I'm trying to do. So I'm not gonna commit the crime. I'm not going to encourage you to do the crime. I'm just listening and just being curious about you. But then people make mistakes because they share, they over share sometimes without knowing. Maybe they're too tired or something. Natalia:I have a bit of a strange question. So with the lockdown, culturally, people are expressing publicly that they feel like they're over sharing. Because they're all locked indoors. They have, their only outlet is to share online. So have you noticed that in your work in security? Do, are people over sharing in that underground world as well? Or there, there hasn't been an equal shift?Peter:No, I, I, I, actually think it's getting worse. Um, and part of the reason is, as more people go online, they're speaking more about how to be anonymous. So for example, I've seen a rapid increase in BackConnect. These are residential IP addresses used as proxies. Well 'cause now they're communicating to each other, saying, hey, we're all online and this is how you can get found out. And so there actually there's more sharing going on. You know, I look at this, many more VPN services out there. It just seems, they're better prepared. Now, obviously, we see a lot more, right? So I'm definitely seeing more sophistication because people are spending more time online. So they, they're not walking around waiting for the bus. They're reading, they're learning, they're adapting. They communicate with each other. Peter:I've even found like, cyber crime as a service, we've found clusters of groups of people. And when you look at that network, you could see. They're saying, oh, I offer phishing pages or I offer VPN. They become specialized. So now you have people that are saying, I am just gonna focus on getting your, for example, some exploits. Or I'm just gonna focus on getting you, um, some red team work so that you can go and drop your ransomware. You know what, they, they've become more specialized actually because they're online. And they've got the time to learn.Nic:Peter, you mentioned earlier, some time you spent in, I think, was it the French army, is that correct?Peter:Yes, that's correct.Nic:Do you want to talk about that? Was that your foray into security? Did it, did it begin with your career in the army? Or did it begin before then?Peter:Hmm. I think it started probably before then. In a sense that, once I left high school, I decided I wanted to study law. Because I wanted the system that I was gonna be working in. And so I went to law school, uh, in the UK. And when I came out, unfortunately, the market was not as good. So I couldn't get a job. And when I looked around at what other trenches I had. I found there was an accelerated cause to become an officer in the French Army. It's a bit like, West Point in the US. Or, and so to do that, it was basically two years, it a two year program condensed into four months. It was hard. And so (laughs) I-Nic:It was what? No sleep? Is that what it was? (laughs)Peter:Ahhh. I've lived through little sleep.Nic:No sleep before meals.Peter:Yeah. I had to, you know, even- Well one time, I even had to evacuated because I got hyperten- you know, uh, hypothermia. (laughs) It was, uh, sort of a character build, character builder, I like to call it that. Uh, but really I think that started the path. Uh, but for the security side was, was after that. So, 'cause of my debts from law school, I, I left the army and I went to, back to the UK. And there, the first job I found was to be a paralegal, photocopying accounts, bank accounts opened between 1933 and 1947. It was part of something called a survey. And it actually had something to do with the Nazi gold.Peter:So what happened is that during the second world war, a lot of peop- uh, people of Jewish origin, saw that they were gonna be persecuted and took their money to, uh, Switzerland and put them in numbered accounts. And kept the number in their head. While unfortunately, so many of them sadly, uh, were victimized, they died. And the number died with them. Well, the money stayed in the accounts and over time because the accounts were dormant, well, you had charges. And so the money left. Peter:And so this was something that Paul Volcker, I believe it was, started the survey to get the Swiss banks to comply and give the money back to the families as result. So I was part of a team investigating one of the banks there. And although I started photocopying, I looked at, using my military skills, to be very efficient. So I was the best photocopier.Natalia:(laughs)Peter:And uh, and we were five levels underground. And that's what I did and I worked hard. And then after a few weeks, I got promoted to manage, uh, photocopiers. The people photocopying. We were a great team. And after that, they realized I was still hanging around because everyone was sleeping. 'Cause working five levels underground is a bit depressing sometimes. Peter:And so eventually, I became a data analyst. And so now I had to do the research on the accounts to try and find someone writing in pen, oh, this number is related to this other main account. Or this there piece of evidence is linked to this name. And so basically, for about, I think about three years, I basically, I eventually ran the French team and we looked at all the French cards opened from that period. And that started the investigations and sort of, trying to think deeper into evidence and how to make it work. Natalia:I really didn't think of myself as being cool before this, but I'm definitely not cool after hearing this. It's been validated, these stories are way beyond me. Peter:(laughs) Well, no. Just stories.Natalia:(laughs) So what brought you to Microsoft? That how did you go from piracy investigation to working at Microsoft as an investigator?Peter:So what took place was actually, my troubles created by Microsoft. So back in 2000 it was Microsoft who actually saw that the internet was becoming something that could really hurt internet commerce and e-commerce of role and wanted to make sure Peter:But they could contribute to it, and participate by building this capacity. And all the way through, they were one of my clients, at, essentially. And at some point, I realized that in my career, working for different customers, clients is great, because you learn, you don't have something different. So, for example, a software company is very different to a games company. Is different to a publishing company, is different to a mo- motion picture company, although it's digital piracy, it's actually very different in many respects. And I have- I saw how Microsoft was investing more in the cloud at that time, and I saw that as a big opportunity to really help a bigger threat to the system, right? Peter:And when I say to the system, E-commerce, 'cause everything was booming, this was in like 2008. And so, I decided that I would work for them. And actually, they offered me the job. So, I- I didn't, you know, I'm very privileged to be where I am now. But the, the, the way they positioned it is that they were looking for someone to help develop systems to map out, create a heat map of online piracy. I was like, "Wow, this is a global effort." So, uh, that's what I came on board with. And I built actually, a, a system similar to Minority Report, whereby I got basically these crawlers that I built that would go out and visit all these pirate sites. And you'll find this fascinating 'cause... Well, I found it fascinating, in some cases- Natalia:(laughs). Peter:... as we accessed the forums that we're offering, you know, download sale, RapidShare was one of the companies at the time, as we shut them down, they have crawlers in the forum, which will go and replace them. So, we had machine or machine wars, where we would shut down a URL, and then they would put another one. The problem is that our system was infinite. That is, we can, the machine can keep clicking. For them, they had about 10 groups of files. And so once they reached number 10, that was it. So, I found a way to automate the systems. And then after that using the, the Kinect, do you remember the Xbox Kinect? Nic:Cer- certainly. Peter:Managed to hack that, and the way it happened is that I built a map on Bing, whereby the Kinect could look in my body structure. And as I moved my hand, it would drill in to a country. And when I pushed, it would create, like, a, a table on the window with the number of infringements, what products were offered, when was the last time it was detected. And then, I could just wave it away and it would go, and then I could spin the world, it was a 3D map to go to another country and say, "What are the concentrations of piracy?" In this way, we had a visualized way of looking at crime as they were taking place online, and then zoom in and say, "We need to spend more effort here." Right? Peter:So, as well, just getting data analytics, but in a 3D format. And so, that was part of the excitement when I joined, is how to do that. Another example is, I found that, I read some research where it said that basically humans only spend a minute and a half on any search query. You know, in itself it doesn't mean much. But imagine you have a timer and it's one second, two seconds, three seconds, right? You're waiting for a minute and a half, right? So, 90 seconds, let's double that and say 180 seconds. Basically, let's say three minutes, it means that if you go to anyone you know, and ask them, "Go and search for Britney Spears downloads." And you look too, go, do, do the search, and they will click a link, nothing. Go next, click next, and they'll keep going. Peter:Before the three minute mark, they'll stop. They'll change the query, they'll do something different. Because they wouldn't get a result. Which means that when you do a search, and a search has got a million results, uh, it doesn't really matter. People are not going to go through the million. So, I started to think about the problems that when executives and people were saying, "Oh, I go on the internet, and I can find bad stuff." I was like, "Okay, but you can do like in three minutes. How about I build a robot that will pretend to be you, and go and find the infringements within that three minute window? Which is about 400 URLs. But I'm going to hit it with like send 100 queries, distributed." Peter:All of a sudden, we were finding the infringements before anyone could click on it, because we would report it to Google, Bing, Yandex, Baidu. And they would remove it from the, from the search results. And then, we had a measurement system, which would check and see, if I was a human, how many seconds would it take before I found an active download? Right? You could automate it. And so, we had a dashboard that could show that, and it worked. You know, we could, we saw a decline in the number of complaints because, well, it wasn't as visible. Now, if you knew where the pirate bay was, yeah, okay. But that wasn't really what we were doing. We were looking at protecting people from getting downloads which contain malware, or something nefarious, right? And, and, so we built these systems to protect consumers, essentially.Natalia:So, is there a connection, or maybe a community behind the work that you've done in piracy and the world of copyright? Uh, any, any best practices that are shared with content creators who are equally concerned with a malware being in their content, or just the sheer, the sheer fact that someone is pirating their content?Peter:I think from a contents per- perspective, and there are several amazing organizations out there, such as the BSA, Business Software Alliance, you have the MPAA, you know, you have the RIAA, and also IACC, the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition. Who have just incredible guidance for their members, which are specialized. So, for example, when you look at counterfeit goods, that's a very different thing to like, say, video, because video is distributed in a diff- different way. But one thing, which I think is important is that you don't just leave your, your house open, you lock it with a key, otherwise, someone will just come in and take your stuff. Peter:So, I think the same with contents, that when we create content, we have to find a way to work not only with different organizations that are looking to protect those rights, but also assume your own responsibility of locking your door. For example, what security could you put on it? Right? To maintain it? And how could you work with law enforcement who are there to protect the law, right? There are, I think there are different things that could be considered but most of it really, I would say the best is to start with the industry association, because they are much more specialized, and can give better advice, depending on the nature of the content that the person has. Peter:But, you know, when we were looking at online piracy, it wasn't just online piracy, because, you know, Microsoft participated in something called Operation Pangea. This was an Interpol driven operation where we found that a Russian organization that was distributing software for download in the millions of dollars, we took action to dismantle their payment mechanism. So, Visa and MasterCard would stop the payment on their website. So, they moved to prescription drugs, and they started selling prescription drugs. And so, for certain, it's really not in Microsoft's mandate to do that, right? Peter:But what we did is that we provided the expertise, and the knowledge we have to law enforcement to detect these websites. There were about 10,000 of them, and then drill down to say, "What's the payment gateway?" Because that's a choke point, you know, a criminal, definitely does what he does for the money. You know, you're not gonna rob a bank if there's no money there, right? So, with that in mind, they were able to do really, massively disrupt this organization. And that's because Microsoft looks at providing its expertise, and also learning from other people's expertise, right? But to tackle this bigger problem that impacts all of us.Nic:Peter, I'd love to circle back to language for a sec here. And when you were talking about the languages that you speak, and, and the importance of understanding culture. From your perspective, do you think there are countries, language groups, ethnic groups that are disproportionately... Well, I'm trying to think of the most elegant way to say, not protected or not protected as well as they could because they speak a language that is, you know, not as prevalent? So, you know, I looked at, you know, I'd never heard of the two, the two, uh, Ghanaian languages that you had on your- Peter:Mm-hmm (affirmative). Nic:... on your profile there, I'm not even gonna say them right, but Fante and- Peter:(laughs), so, it's Fante and Twi. Nic:Fante and Twi. So- Peter:Perfect. Nic:... native Fante, and Twi, I'm, I'm assuming there's, there's hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of speakers of those- Peter:Yeah. Yes, absolutely.Nic:... two languages?Peter:Yes, yeah. Nic:Do AI and ML systems allow for supporting people that, you know, either don't speak English, or a sort of major international language?Peter:You're touching on something, which is very near and dear to me, 'cause it's a whole different conversation. And if you look at the history of language, there's, a, a great group of seminars written about it. It's actually I think, I believe, somewhere, I read somewhere that 60% of languages are actually not written. Right? And yes, you can go and see Microsoft has, translates between say, 60 or 100 pairs of languages, and Google the same. But what about the others? What about the thousands of others, that I think there are over 6,000 languages in the world. You're right. I mean, earlier this year, if I may be personal, I'm trying to adopt a baby girl. And so, I went to Ghana to try and manage the situation, which is very slow. Peter:And when I was there, I just saw the reality that, you know, they don't have access to resources, right? Because a book costs money. And so even for AI, how would they even know what AI is? So, I think there is an increasing gap, which is taking place. We can't keep build, building bigger walls, because it's just not going to work. We gotta be, we gotta think bigger than that. And so, one of the ideas is that when we look at some of the criminals, like I've had quite a few of them, a lot of them go to the same technical universities, for example, in West Africa. Well, why is that? It's cause I think they develop skills, and then they leave, and they can't get a job. And so, they end up being pulled into a life of cybercrime. So, culture Peter:It's I think becoming an important thing is that, there is a bigger and bigger divide 'cause not as many people have access to the resources, and how can we as a community who do have access, sort of proactively contribute to that? 'Cause we can't, there's no way you can, you know, just Nigeria has 190 million people. That's a lot of people, that's a lot people. The African continent has 1.2 billion. Asia, four billion, was like, um, I think it's like, is it two, three billion? No, two billion? Something like that but it's a lot people- Nic:It's a lot. Peter:... outside, right? (laughs). And so I think, I'm glad you brought that up 'cause I think it's a- an interesting conversation that we need to develop even, even more. Natalia:So, just trying to distill some of that down. So, are, are you saying then that, uh, at least when we're looking at language, there is a greater diversity of threat actors than there are targets? That those targets are centralized more around English speakers, but because of disproportionate opportunities in other parts of the world, we see threat actors across a number of different languages, across a number of different cultures? Peter:Yes. I, I think that's, that's a goo- uh, kind of a good summary of that, but I'll probably take it a step further and say, from my vantage point, again, you know, there are many other more brilliant people out there than me, I can only speak of what I've seen. I still find there are concentrations, right? When you look at business email compromise, and you go and pick up a newspaper and say, "Show me all articles about BEC, the biggest crime right now in the world, and show me all the people who've been arrested." Guess what? They're all from one place, West Africa. Why? Because if you look at the history of that crime, BEC, it was a ruse. Before that it used to be called, it was all under the category of Advanced E-fraud, but it used to be a lottery scam. Oh, the Bill and Melinda Gates lottery, you've won $25 million, or, uh, the Nigerian prince, right?Peter:Some people call 419 which is a criminal code in Nigeria. And then it went further back, they used to send faxes. Or, a lot of people developed a culture called the Yahoo boys, right? They it called Yahoo-Yahoo. And what they do is you go on YouTube, and you search for Yahoo-Yahoo, you'll see them like there's a whole culture behind that. They're dancing, they say, "This is my Monday car, my Tuesday car." And because they're making money and their communities are not, the community helps them because they get money. The stolen money is shared, and so now it becomes harder to break that because it becomes part of a culture. And so, that's why we see a lot more there I think than for example, in the US, or in Russia or in other countries it's 'cause I think there was, there's a, they have this kind of lead way that they'd be doing it for a lot longer and have a better sense of how to be sly. Nic:It sounds like the, the principles of reducing crime apply just as generally in the cyberspace as they do too in the, the non-cyber space. Whereas if you can give opportunities and lu- you know, um, lucrative opportunities to people, to utilize the skills that they've developed, both sort of in an orthodox or in an unorthodox fashion- Peter:Mm-hmm (affirmative). Nic:... then they're gonna put those skills to good use. But if you, if you train them up and then don't give them any way of using those skills to, to go, you know, ma- make a living in a, in a positive sense, they're, they're gonna turn to other, other avenues. Sounds like in, in, in parts of West Africa, that is business email compromise.Peter:Right, it is. And if I could just add two things there, one is that, you know, when I started looking at how to address cyber, online criminality, I have to look at the physical part of it. And in the physical world, there's actually, I call them neighborhoods. You have good neighborhoods, and bad neighborhoods, right? There are some neighborhoods you go to, no one's going to pick pockets you, right? Everyone's got a nice car or whatever. The other neighborhoods you go to, and there are some shady people in the corner, probably selling drugs or something. You know, uh, I'm, I'm being very simplistic, but I'm just trying to say, there are differences in neighborhoods in the physical world, and those need to be looked at as well. Because even if you gave education or a job to someone in a bad neighborhood, because of the environmental pressure, they may not be able to leave that neighborhood because they could be pressured into it. Peter:Online it's the same, I found that you see there are clusters of criminal activities that happen. And in those virtual they're interconnected, it's like, like two, or three levels, they know each other mostly. And so, we can have this kind of, we have to think more holistically, I suppose. I'm trying to say, Nic, that, it, we also have to look at the neighborhood and how do you make sure, for example, that neighborhood they have a sports field or the streets are clean because it makes you feel good, right? There's, there are other environmental factors that I think we may need to consider in a more holistic way. We, we can move much faster that way, because there are different factors, uh, which contribute to this.Nic:So, Peter, I honestly feel like we could keep chatting for the next four hours, right? Natalia:(laughs), I know. Peter:(laughs). Nic:We, we, (laughs). We, we've already, (laughs), eaten up a, a lot of your time, and we've covered a lot of ground. I'd love to circle back one final time to, to language and really sort of ask you is, eh, maybe it's not language, but is there something that you sort of feel particularly passionate about in your career at Microsoft? What you've done so far, what you're working on, and what you hope to do moving forward, is language and opening up accessibility through language, and other sort of cultural diversity? You, you, you, spoke a lot about that in the last sort of, you know, 45 minutes. Is that, is that something that you're personally, uh, invested in, and would like to work more on in the future? And, and if not, what other areas are you, are you looking forward to in the future? Peter:It's, it's absolutely something I'm, I'm very passionate about. And within Microsoft, as an example, the company has invested a lot in diversity and inclusion and equity, and it ended last year, but I was the president of the Africans in Microsoft employee resource group, for example, which has close to a thousand people. And all of it is about helping, working in a two way street, where we help our community, who are at times new in the country. And so, don't understand the cultural differences and how do we help them better, not integrate, but be themselves. And also, allow others that don't understand that they may be a minority, but there's so much richness to that diversity and how it makes teams stronger, because then you're not all looking through the same lens and you can bring in, you know, different perspectives about it. So, I'm absolutely invested in that, not just here in the US but also, you know, the African continent. Peter:And, and I'm very fortunate to be working in a company that's actually pushing me to do that. You know, the company is, is doing amazing things when it comes to diversity and inclusion. And yes, there's room to be made, but at least they're active. Going back really quickly to what you mentioned about language and AI, when we look at the internet, the internet is still zeros and ones. So, when you look at machine learning models, a lot of it is looking for like over 250 signals, right? In a, in one site. And it's not just about the language, it's about different languages, computer code and human code. And so, the machines are bringing those two together, which can help better secure platforms. Natalia:And just as we wrap up here, is there anything you want to plug? Any resources, any groups that you'd like to share with our audience? Peter:I think for me, you know, always try and keep updated on security. So, you know, the Microsoft Security Bulletin is a, is a great source for, uh, up-to-date information. Also, I think there are many other organizations that people can search for and reach out to me on the antenna. If you're not a bad guy or girl, I'll- Natalia:(laughs). Peter:... I'll share, (laughs), we, we can, um, actually, you know, I try to mentor as many people in our industry because, eh, together we become stronger. So, do reach out if you want to. Natalia:Awesome. Thank you for that, Peter. It was great having you on the show again, and I can honestly say, we'd be happy to have you back, and it was infinitely fascinating. Peter:Thank you very much for the invitation again. And, uh, it was a pleasure participating. Natalia:By the way, [foreign language 00:38:17]. Peter:Uh, there you go. Natalia:If you ever want to. Peter:(laughs). Natalia:(laughs). Peter:(laughs). Nic:Natalia, I didn't know you speak Spanish.Natalia:(laughs). Peter:(laughs). Natalia:Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security from research to artificial intelligence, keep an eye out for our next episode. Nic:And don't forget to tweet us @msftsecurity or mail us at securityunlockedatmicrosoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on a future episode. Until then, stay safe.Natalia:Stay secure.
3/31/2021

The Human Element with Valecia Maclin

Ep. 21
For Women’s History Month, we wanted to share the stories of just a few of the amazing women who make Microsoft the powerhouse that it is. To wrap up the month, we speak with Valecia Maclin, brilliant General Engineering Manager of Customer Security & Trust, about the human element of cybersecurity.In discussion with hosts Nic Fillingham and Natalia Godyla, Valecia speaks to how she transitioned into cybersecurity after originally planning on becoming a mechanical engineer, and how she oversees her teams with a sense of humanity - from understanding that working from home brings unique challenges, to going the extra mile to ensure that no member of the team feels like an insignificant cog in a big machine - Valecia is a shining example of what leadership should look like, and maybe humanity too.In this Episode You Will Learn:• The importance of who is behind cybersecurity protocols• How Microsoft’s Engineering, Customer Security & Trust team successfully transitioned to remote work under Valecia’s leadership• Tips on being a more inclusive leader in the security spaceSome Questions that We Ask:• What excites Valecia Maclin about the future of Cybersecurity• How does a mechanical engineering background affect a GM’s role in Infosec• How Valecia Maclin, General Manager of Engineering, Customer Security & Trust, got to where she is todayResources:Valecia’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/valeciamaclin/Advancing Minorities’ Interest in Engineering:https://www.amiepartnerships.org/SAFECode:https://safecode.org/Microsoft’s TEALS:https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/tealsMicrosoft’sDigiGirlz:https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/diversity/programs/digigirlz/default.aspxNic’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicfill/Natalia’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliagodyla/Microsoft Security Blog:https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/Transcript[Full transcript can be found athttps://aka.ms/SecurityUnlockedEp21]Nic Fillingham:Hello, and welcome to Security Unlocked, a new podcast from Microsoft, where we unlock insights from the latest in news and research from across Microsoft security engineering and operations teams. I'm Nic Fillingham. Natalia Godyla:And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories from Microsoft security, deep dive into the newest threat intel research and data science. Nic Fillingham:And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft security. Natalia Godyla:And now let's unlock the pod. Hey Nic, welcome to today's episode. How are you doing today? Nic Fillingham:Hello Natalia, I'm doing very well, thank you. And very excited for today's episode, episode 21. Joining us today on the podcast is Valecia Maclin, general manager of engineering for customer security and trust someone who we have had on the shortlist to invite onto the podcast since we began. And this is such a great time to have Valecia come and share her story and her perspective being the final episode for the month of March, where we are celebrating women's history month. So many incredible topics covered here in this conversation. Natalia, what were some of your highlights? Natalia Godyla:I really loved how she brought in her mechanical engineering background to cybersecurity. So she graduated with mechanical engineering degree and the way she described it was that she was a systems thinker. And as a mechanical engineer, she thought about how systems could fail. And now she applies that to cybersecurity and the- the lens of risk, how the systems that she tries to secure might fail in order to protect against attacks. And I just thought that that was such a cool application of a non-security domain to security. What about yourself? Nic Fillingham:Yeah. Well, I think first of all, Valencia has a- a incredibly relatable story up front for how she sort of found herself pointed in the direction of computer science and security. I think people will relate to that, but then also we spent quite a bit of time talking about the importance of the human element in cybersecurity and the work that Valecia does in her engineering organization around championing and prioritizing, um, diversity inclusion and what that means in the context of cybersecurity. Nic Fillingham:It's a very important topic. It's very timely. I think it's one that people have got a lot of questions about, like, you know, we're hearing about DNI and diversity and inclusion, what is it? What does it mean? What does it mean for cybersecurity? I think Valecia covers all of that in thi- in this conversation and her perspective is incredible. Oh, and the great news is, as you'll hear at the end, Valecia is hiring. So if you like me are inspired by this conversation, great news is actually a bunch of roles that you can go and, uh, apply for to go and work for Valecia on her team.Natalia Godyla:On with the pod?Nic Fillingham:On with the pod. Valecia Maclin, welcome to the Security Unlocked podcast. Thank you so much for your time. Valecia Maclin:Thank you, Nic and Natalia. Nic Fillingham:We'd love to start to learn a bit about you. You're, uh, the general manager of engineering for customer security and trust. Tell us what that means. Tell us about your team, us about the amazing work that you and- and the people on your team do. Valecia Maclin:I am so proud of our customer security and trust engineering team. Our role is to deliver solutions and capabilities that empower us to ensure our customers trust in our services and our products. So I have teams that build engineering capabilities for the digital crimes unit. We build compliance capabilities for our law enforcement and national security team. And our team makes sure that law enforcement agencies are in compliant with their local regulatory responsibilities and that we can meet our obligations to protect our customers. Valecia Maclin:I have another team that provides on national security solutions. We do our global transparency centers on where we can ensure that our products are what we say they are. I have two full compliance engineering teams that build capabilities to automate our compliance at scale for our Microsoft security development lifecycle, as well as, uh, things like, uh, advancing machine learning, advancing open source security, just a wealth of enterprise wide, as well as stakeholder community solutions. Um, I could go on and on. We do digital safety engineering, so a very broad set of capabilities all around the focus and the mission of making sure that the products and services that we deliver to our customers are what we intend and say that they are Nic Fillingham:Got it. And Valencia so how does your engineering org relate to some of the other larger engineering orgs at Microsoft that are building, uh, security compliance solutions?Valecia Maclin:So our other Microsoft organizations that do that are often building those capabilities within a particular product engineering group. Um, customer security and trust is actually in our corporate, external and legal affairs function. So we don't have that sales obligation. Our full-time responsibility is looking across the enterprise and delivering capabilities that meet those broad regulatory responsibility. So again, if we think about our digital crimes unit that partners with law enforcement to protect our customers around the world, well building capabilities for them or digital safety, right? If you think about the Christ church call and what happened in New Zealand, we're building capabilities to help with that in partnership with what those product groups may need to do. So, um, so we're looking at compliance more broadly. Nic Fillingham:Got it. And does your team interface with some of the engineering groups that are developing products for customers? Valecia Maclin:Absolutely. So when you think about the work that we do in the open source security space, our team is kinda that pointy end of the spear to do, um, that assessment and identify here where some areas are that we need to put some focus and then the engineering, the product engineering groups will then and build, go and build that resiliency into the systems. Nic Fillingham:To follow up questions. One is on the podcast, we've actually spoken to some- some folks that are on your team. Uh, Andrew Marshall was on an earlier episode. We spoke with Scott Christianson, we've had other members of the digital crimes unit come on and talk about that work, just a sort of a sign post for listeners of the podcast. How does Andrew's work, uh, fit in your organization? How does Scott's work fit into your organization? Valecia Maclin:So, um, both Andrew and Scott are in a team, um, within my org, uh, that's called security engineering and assurance, and they're actually able to really focus their time on that thought leadership portion. So again, if you think about the engineering groups and the product teams, they have to, you know, really focus on the resiliency of the products, what our team is doing is looking ahead to think about what new threat vectors are. So if you think about the work that Andrew does, he partnered with Harvard and- and other parts of- of Microsoft to really advance thought leadership and how we can interpret adversarial machine learning. Valecia Maclin:Um, when you think about some of our other work in our open source security space, it is let's look forward at where we need to be on the edge from a thought leadership perspective, let's prototype some capabilities operationalizes, so that it's tangible for the engineering groups that then apply and then, uh, my guys will go and partner with the engineering groups and gi- and girls, right? So- so, um, we will then go and partner with the product groups to operationalize those solutions either as a part of our security, um, development life cycle, or just a general security and assurance practices. Nic Fillingham:Got it. And I think I- I can remember if it was Scott or Andrew mentioned this, but on a previous podcast, there was a reference to, I think it's an internal tool, something called Liquid. Valecia Maclin:Liquid, yes, uh, yeah. Nic Fillingham:Is that, can you talk about that? Cause we, uh, it was hinted at in the previous episode? Valecia Maclin:Absolutely. Yes. Yeah. So Liquid, um, actually have a full team that builds and sustains Liquid. It is a, um, custom built capability that allows us to basically have sensors within our built systems. Um, and so when you think about our security development life cycle, and you think about our operational security requirements, it's given us a way to automate not only those requirements, but you know, ISO and NIST standards. Um, and then that way, with those hooks into the build systems, we can get a enterprise wide look at the compliance state of our bills as they're going on. Valecia Maclin:So a developer in a product group doesn't have to think about, am I compliant with SDL? Um, what they can do is, you know, once the- the data is looked at, we can do predictive and reactive analysis and say, hey, you know, there's critical bugs in this part of the application that haven't been burned down within 30 days. And so rath- rather than a lot of manual and testation, we can do, um, compliance a scale. And I- I just mentioned manual and testation of security requirements. Oh, one of my other teams, um, has recently just launched Valecia Maclin:.. the capability that we're super excited about that leverages what we call Coach UL or used to be called Simile. That again, is automating kind of on the other edge, right? So, with liquid, it's once we pulled in the build data. Um, we're working with the engineering groups in Microsoft now to, um, do the other edge where they don't have to set up a test that they're compliant with security requirements. Um, we're, we're moving very fast to, um, automate that on behalf of the developer, so that again, we're doing security by design. Nic Fillingham:So, how has your team had to evolve and change, uh, the way that they, they work during this sort of the COVID era, during the sort of work from home? Was your team already set up to be able to securely work remotely or were there sort of other changes you had to make on the fly? Valecia Maclin:So, you know, uh, as we've been in COVID, my team does respond to phenomenally. We were actually well positioned to work from home and continue to function from home. You know, there were some instances where from an ergonomic perspective, let's get some resources out to folks because maybe their home wasn't designed for them to be there, you know, five days a week. So, the, the technical component of doing the work, wasn't the challenge. What I, as a leader continuously emphasized, and it's what, what my team needed, frankly, is making sure we stayed with the connectedness, right?Valecia Maclin:How do we continue to make sure that folks are connected, that they don't feel isolated? That, you know, they feel visibility from their, from their managers? And consider I had, I had 10 new people start in the past year, entirely through COVID including three new college hires. So, can you imagine starting your professional-Nic Fillingham:Wow.Valecia Maclin:... career onboarding and never being in the office with your peers or colleagues and, and, you know, and the connected tissue you would typically organically have to build relationships. And so through COVID, during COVID, we've had to be very creative about building and sustaining the connective tissue of the team. Making sure that we were understanding folks, um, personal needs and creating a safe space for that. You know, I was a big advocate way back in August where I said, Hey folks, you know, 'cause the sch- I knew the school year was starting. And even though we hadn't made any statements yet about when returned to work would, you know, would advanced to, I made a statements to my team of, Hey, it's August, we've been at this for a few months. It's not going anywhere anytime soon. Valecia Maclin:So, I don't want us carrying ourselves as if we're coming back to the office tomorrow. Let's, you know, give folks some space to reconcile what this is gonna look like if they have childcare, if they have elder care, if they're just frozen from being in- indoors this amount of time. Let's make sure that we're giving each other space for that. Also during the past year, you know, certainly we had, I would say, parallel once in a generation type events, right?Valecia Maclin:So, we had COVID, but we also had, uh, increased awareness, you know, of, of the racial inequities in our country. And for me as a woman of color that's in cybersecurity, I've spent my entire career being a, a series of first, um, particularly at the executive table. And so, you know, so it was a, an opportunity we also had in the past year to advance that conversation so that we could extend one another grace, right? So I personally was touched by COVID. I, I lost five people in the past year. Um, and I was also-Nic Fillingham:I'm so sorry. Valecia Maclin:Yeah. (laughs) And you keep showing up, right? And I was personally touched as a black woman who once again, has to be concerned about, you know, I have, uh, I have twin nephews that are 19, one's autistic and the other is not, but we won't allow him to get a driver's license yet 'cause he, my, my sister's petrified because, you know, that's a real fear that a young man who's 6'1", sweetest thing you would ever see, soft-spoken, um, but he's 6'1". He has, you know, dreadlocks in his hair or locks. He would hate to hear me say they were dreads. He has locks in his hair. Um, and he dresses like a 19 year old boy, right?Valecia Maclin:But on spot, that's not what the world sees. And so, um, that's what we're all in. Then you think about what's happening now with our Asian-American community. That's also bundled with folks who are human, having to be isolated and endorse, which that's not how humanity was designed. And so we have to remember that that shows up. And, and when you're in, in the work of security, where you're always thinking about threat actors, and I often say that some of our best security folks have kind of some orthogonal thinking that's necessary to kind of deal with the different nuances.Valecia Maclin:When you, when you are thinking about how do you build resiliency against ever evolving threats, (laughs) not withstanding the really massive one that, you know, was the next one we, we dealt with at the end of the last calendar year. Those are all things that work in the circle. And I always say that people build systems, they don't build themselves. And in this time more than ever, hopefully, as security professionals, we're remembering the human element. And we're remembering that the work that we do, um, has purpose, which is, you know, why I entered this space in, in the first and why I've spent my career doing the things I've done is because we have a phenomenal responsibility increasingly in a time of interconnectedness from a technology perspective to secure our way of life. Nic Fillingham:Wow. Well, on, on that note, you talked about sort of why you went into security. I'd love to sort of, I'd love to go there. Would you mind talking us through how you sort of first learnt of security and, and why you're excited about it, and how you made the decision to, to go into that space? Valecia Maclin:Absolutely. So, mine actually started quite awhile ago. I was majoring in mechanical engineering and material science, uh, at Duke university. I was in my junior year and, um, I should preface it with, I did my four year engineering degree in three and a half years. So, my, my junior year was pretty intense. I worked, was working on a project for mechanical engineering that I'd spent about seven hours on and I lost my data.Nic Fillingham:Ah!Valecia Maclin:I was building a model, literally, I sat at the computer because, you know, you know, back then, you know, there weren't a whole lot of computer resources, so you try to get there early and, and, and snag the computer so that you could use it as long as you needed to. I went in actually, on a holiday because I knew everybody would be gone. So, if I, I could have the full day and not have to give up the computer to someone. So, I'd spend seven hours building this model and it disappeared. Valecia Maclin:And it was the, you know, little five in a 10 floppy, I'm pulling it out, I'm looking at the box (laughs). It's gone. The, the, the model's gone. I was gonna have to start all over. I started my homework over again, but then I said, I will never lose a homework assignment like that again. So, I went and found a professor in the computer science school to agree to do an independent study with me, because as a junior, no one was gonna allow me to change my major for mechanical engineering that far in, at Duke University. So, (laughs) not, not my parents, anyway. So, I, um, did an independent study in computer science and taught myself programming. So, I taught myself programming, taught myself how to understand the hardware with, with my professors help, of course. But it was the work I did with that independent study that actually led to the job I was hired into when I graduated. Valecia Maclin:So, I've never worked as a mechanical engineer. I immediately went into doing national security work, um, where I worked for companies that were in the defense industrial base for the United States. And so I, I started and spent my entire career building large scale information systems for, you know, the DOD, for the intelligence community, and that vectored into my main focus on large, um, security systems that I was developing, or managing, or leading solutions through. So, it started with loss data, right? (laughs) You know, which is so apropos for where we are today, but it started with, you know, losing data on a software, in a software application and me just being so frustrated Valecia Maclin:Straight and said, that's never gonna happen to me again (laughs) that, um, that led me to pursue work in this space. Natalia Godyla:How did your degree in mechanical engineering inform your understanding of InfoSec? As you were studying InfoSec, did you feel like you were bringing in some of that knowledge? Valecia Maclin:One of the beautiful things and that was interesting is I would take on new roles, I'll, I'll never forget. Um, I, I got wonderful opportunities as, as my career was launched and folks would ask me, well, why are you gonna go do that job? You've never done that before, you know, do you know it? (laughs) And so what that taught me is, you know, you don't have to know everything about it going in, you just need to know how to address the problem, right? So, I consider myself a systems thinker, and that's what my mechanical engineering, um, background provided was look at the whole system, right? And so how do you approach the problem? And also because I also had a material science component, we studied failures a lot. So, material failure, how that affected infrastructure, you know, when a bridge collapse or, or starts to isolate. Um, so it was that taking a systems view and then drilling down into the details to predictively, identify failures and then build resiliency to not have those things happen again. Is that kind of that, that level of thinking that played into when I went into InfoSec. Natalia Godyla:That sounds incredibly fitting. So, what excites you today about InfoSec or, or how has your focus in InfoSec changed over time? What passions have you been following? Valecia Maclin:So, for me, it's the fact that it's always going to evolve, right? And so, you know, obviously the breaches make the headlines, but I'm one, we should never be surprised by breaches, just like we shouldn't be surprised by car thefts or home invasions, or, you know, think about the level of insurance, and infrastructure, and technology, and tools and habits (laughs) that we've, uh, we've developed over time for basic emergency response just for our homes or our life, right? Valecia Maclin:So, for me, it's just part of the evolution that we have, that there's always gonna be something new and there's always gonna be that actor that's gonna look to take a shortcut, that's gonna look to take something from someone else. And so in that regard, it is staying on the authence of building resiliency to protect our way of life. And so I, I am always passionate and again, it's, it's likely how I, you know, spent almost, you know, over 27 years of my career is protecting our way of life. But protecting it in a way where for your everyday citizen, they don't have to go and get the degree in computer science, right? Valecia Maclin:That they can have confidence in the services and the, the things that they rely on. They can have confidence that their car system's gonna break, that the brakes are gonna hit, you know, activate when they hit it. That's the place I wanna see us get to as it relates to the dependency we now have on our computer systems, and in our internet connected devices and, and IOT and that sort of thing. So, that's what makes me passionate. Today it may look like multi-factored authentication and, you know, zero trust networks, but tomorrow is gonna look like something completely different. And what I, where I'd love to see us get is, you know, think about your car. We don't freak out about the new technologies that show up in our car, you know, 'cause we know how, we, we, we get in and we drive and, and we anxiously await some people.Valecia Maclin:I, I'm kind of a control freak, I wanna still drive my car. I don't want it to drive itself (laughter). Um, but nevertheless, with each, you know, generational evolution of the car, we didn't freak out and say, Oh my gosh, it's doing this now. If we can start to get there to where there's trust and confidence. And, and that's why I love, you know, what my org is responsible for doing is, you know, that there's trust and confidence that when Microsoft, when you have a Microsoft product or service, you, you, you can trust that it's doing what you intend for it to do. And, and that's not just for here, but then, you know, when you're again, whether it's the car, or your refrigerator, or your television, that's where I'd love to, that's where I want to see us continue to evolve. Not only in the capabilities we deliver, but as a society, how we expect to interact with them. Natalia Godyla:Are you particularly proud of any projects that you've run or been part of in your career? Valecia Maclin:I am. And it's actually what led me to Microsoft, I had my greatest career success, but it, it came also at, at a time of, of, of my greatest personal loss. Literally they were concurrent on top of each other. And so I was responsible, I was the, the business executive responsible for the cybersecurity version of, of, of the JEDI program. Uh, so I was the business executive architecting our response to that work that was what the department of Homeland Security. I worked for a company that at the time wasn't known for cybersecurity, and so it was a monumental undertaking to get that responsibility. And the role was to take over and then modernize the cybersecurity re- system responsible for protecting the .gov domain. So, it was tremendously rewarding, especially in the optic that we have today. I received the highest award that my prior company gives to an individual. Valecia Maclin:I was super proud of the team that I was able to lead and, and keep together during all the nuances of stop, start, stop, start that government contracting, um, does when there's protests. But during that same time, you know, 'cause it was, so it was one of those once in a career type opportunities, if you've ever done national security work, to actually usher an anchor in a brand new mission is how we would label it, um, that you would be delivering for the government. But at the same time, that, that wonderfully challenging both technically and from a business perspective scenario was going on, I, in successive moments, lost my last grandparent, suddenly lost my sister. 12 months later, suddenly lost my mother, six months later had to have major surgery. So, that all came in succession while I was doing this major once in a career initiative that was a large cyber security program to protect our government. Valecia Maclin:And I, I survived, (laughs) right? So, um, the, the program started and did well, but I, I then kind of took a step back, right? Once I, I, uh, I'd promised the company at the time of the government that I would, I would give it a year, right? I would make sure the program transitioned since we'd worked so hard to get there. And then I took a step back and said, Hmm, what do I really wanna do? This was a lot (laughs). And so I did take a step back and got a call from Microsoft, actually, um, amongst some other companies. Uh, I thought it was gonna take a break, but clearly, um, others had, had different ideas. And so, um, (laughter) I had, I had multiple opportunities presented to me, but what was so intriguing and, and what drew me to Microsoft was first of all, the values of the company. You know, I'm a values driven person and the values, um mean a lot and I'm gonna come back to that in a moment. Valecia Maclin:But then also I, I mentioned that the org I lead is in corporate external and legal affairs. It's not within the product group. It's looking at our global obligations to securing our products and services from a, not just a regulatory perspective, but not limited by our, our sales target. And so the ability to be strategic in that way is what was intriguing and what, what drew me. When you think about the commitments the company has made to its employees and to its vendors during a time, um, that we've been in, it says a lot about the fabric of, of who we are to take that fear of employability insurance and those sorts of things that are basic human needs, to recall how early on we still had our cafeteria services going so that they could then go and provide meals for, for students who would typically get school meals. And at the same Valecia Maclin:... time it meant that those vendors that provide food services could continue to do their work. When you think about our response to the racial inequity and, and justice, social justice initiative, and the commitments were not only, not only made, but our, our keeping is the fabric of the company and the ability to do the work that I'm passionate about, that, that drew me here. Nic Fillingham:You talked about bringing the human element to security. What does that mean to you and how have you tried to bring that sort of culturally into your organization and, and, and beyond?Valecia Maclin:So, if you think about the human element of security, the operative word is human. And so as humans, we are a kaleidoscope of gender, and colors, and nationalities and experiences. Even if you were in the same town, you have a completely different experience that you can bring to bear. So, when I think about how I introduce, um, diversity, equity and inclusion in the organization that I lead, it is making sure that we're more representative of who we are as humans. And sometimes walking around Redmond, that you don't always get that, but it's the, you know, I, I come from the East Coast. So, you know, one of the going phrases I would use a lot is, I'm not a Pacific Northwestner or I don't have this passive aggressiveness down, I'm pretty direct (laughs). And so that's a different approach, right, to how we do our work, how we lean in, how we ask questions. Valecia Maclin:And so I am incredibly passionate about increasing the opportunities and roles for women and underrepresented minorities, underrepresented, uh, minorities in cybersecurity. And so we've been very focused on, you know, not just looking at internal folks that we may have worked on, worked on another team, you know, for years, and making sure that every opportunity in my organization is always opened up both internally and externally. They're always opened up to make sure that we're, we're looking beyond our mirror image to, um, hire staff. And it's powerful having people that think the same way you do, because you can coalesce very quickly. But the flip side of that is sometimes you can lose some innovation because everybody's seeing the same thing you see. And, and it's so important in, in security because we're talking about our threat actors typically having human element, is making sure that we can understand multiple voices and multiple experiences as we're designing solutions, and as we're thinking about what the threats may be. Natalia Godyla:So, for women or, uh, members of minority groups, what guidance do you have for them if they're not feeling empowered right now in security, if they don't know how to network, how to find leaders like yourself, who are supporting DNI? Valecia Maclin:One of the things I always encourage folks to do, and, and I mentor a lot is, just be passionate about who you are and what you contribute. But what I would say, uh, Natalia, is for them to take chances, not be afraid to fail, not be afraid to approach people you don't know, um, something that I got comfortable with very early as if I was somewhere and heard a leader speak on stage somewhere, or I was, uh, you know, I saw someone on a panel internally or externally, I would go up to them afterwards and introduce myself and ask, you know, would you be willing to have a career discussion with me? Can I get 30 minutes on your calendar? And so that was just kind of a normal part of my rhythm, which allowed me to be very comfortable, getting to meet new executive leaders and share about myself and more importantly, hear about their journeys. Valecia Maclin:And the more you hear about other's journey, you can help cultivate a script for your own. And so, so that's what I often encourage 'cause a lot of times folks are apr- afraid, particularly women and, and minorities are afraid to approach to say, think, well, you know, I don't know enough, or I don't know what to ask. It can be as simple as, I heard you speak, I would love to hear more about your story. Do you have time? Do you have 20 minutes? And then let, you know, relationships start from there and let the learning start from there. Nic Fillingham:As a leader in the security space, as a leader at Microsoft, what are you excited about for the future? What what's sort of coming in terms of, you know, it could be cultural change, it could be technology innovation. What, what are you sort of looking and seeing in the next three, five, 10 years? Valecia Maclin:For me it the cultural change. I'm looking forward and you heard me kind of allude to a little bit of this of, you now have the public increasingly aware of what happens when there's data loss. I'm so excited to look forward to that moment when that narrative shifts and the public learns and knows more of security hygiene, cyber security hygiene. And, and not, you know, both consumer and enterprise, because we take for granted that enper- enterprises have nailed this. And, and we're in a unique footing as a company to have it more part of our DNA, but not every company does. And so that's what I'm looking forward to for the future is the culture of that young person in the midst of schooling, not having to guess about what a cybersecurity or security professional is, much like they don't guess what a lawyer or a doctor is, right? So, that's what I look forward to for the future. Nic Fillingham:Any organizations, groups that you, you know, personally support or fans of that you'd also like to plug? Valecia Maclin:Sure. So, I actually support a, a number of organizations. I support an organization called Advancing Minorities in Engineering, which works directly with historically black colleges and universities to not only increase their learning, but also create opportunities to extend the representation in security. I also am a board member of Safe Code, which is also focused on advancing security, design, hygiene across enterprises, small midsize and large businesses. And so, so those are, are certainly, uh, a couple of, of organizations that, you know, I dedicate time to.Valecia Maclin:I would just encourage folks, you know, we have TEALS, we have DigiGirlz. everyone has a role to play to help expand the perception of what we do in the security space. We're not monolithic. The beauty of us as a people is that we can bring our differences together to do some of the most phenomenal, innovative things. And so that would be my ask is in, whatever way fits for where someone is, that they reach out to someone and make that connection. I v- I very often will reach down and, uh, I'll have someone, you know, a couple levels down and say, Oh my gosh, I can't believe you called and asked for a one-on-one. Valecia Maclin:So, I don't wait for folks to ask for a one-on-one with me. I, I'll go and ping and just, you know, pick someone and say, Hey, you know, I wanna, I just wanna touch base with you and see how you're doing and see what you're thinking about with your career. All of us can do that with someone else and help people feel connected and seen. Natalia Godyla:And just to wrap here, are you hiring, are there any resources that you want to plug or share with our audience, might be interested in continuing down some of these topics? Valecia Maclin:Absolutely. Thank you so much. Um, so I am hiring, hiring data architects, 'cause you can imagine that we deal with high volumes of data. I'm hiring software engineers, I'm hiring, uh, a data scientist. So, um, data, data, and more data, right?Natalia Godyla:(laughs).Valecia Maclin:And, um, and software engineers that are inquisitive to figure out the, the right ways for us to, you know, make the best use of it. Natalia Godyla:Awesome. Well, thank [crosstalk 00:35:11] you for that. And thank you for joining us today, Valecia.Valecia Maclin:Thank you, Natalia. Thank you, Nic. I really enjoyed it.Natalia Godyla:Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security from research to artificial intelligence. Keep an eye out for our next episode.Nic Fillingham:And don't forget to tweet us @msftsecurity or email us at securityunlocked@microsoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on a future episode. Until then, stay safe.Natalia Godyla:Stay secure.
3/24/2021

Identity Threats, Tokens, and Tacos

Ep. 20
Every day there are literally billions of authentications across Microsoft – whether it’s someone checking their email, logging onto their Xbox, or hopping into a Teams call – and while there are tools like Multi-Factor Authentication in place to ensure the person behind the keyboard is the actual owner of the account, cyber-criminals can still manipulate systems. Catching one of these instances should be like catching the smallest needle in the largest haystack, but with the algorithms put into place by the Identity Security team at Microsoft, that haystack becomes much smaller, and that needle, much larger.On today’s episode, hostsNic Fillingham and NataliaGodyla invite back Maria Puertos Calvo, theLeadDataScientistin Identity Security and Protection at Microsoft,to talk with us about how her team monitors such amassive scale of authentications on any given day.Theyalsolookdeeper into Maria’s background and find out what got her into the field of security analytics andA.I. in the first place, and how her past in academiahelpedthattrajectory.In this Episode You Will Learn:• How the Identity Security team uses AI to authenticate billions of logins across Microsoft• Why Fingerprints are fallible security tools• How machine learning infrastructure has changed over the past couple of decades at MicrosoftSome Questions that We Ask:• Is the sheer scale of authentications throughout Microsoft a dream come true or a nightmare for a data analyst?• Do today’s threat-detection models share common threads with the threat-detection of previous decades?• How does someone become Microsoft’s Lead Data Scientist for Identity Security and Protection?Resources:#IdentityJobs at Microsoft:https://careers.microsoft.com/us/en/search-results?keywords=%23identityjobsMaria’s First Appearance on Security Unlocked, Tackling Identity Threats with A.I.: https://aka.ms/SecurityUnlockedEp08Maria’s Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mariapuertas/Nic’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicfill/Natalia’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliagodyla/Microsoft Security Blog:https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/Transcript[Full transcript can be found at https://aka.ms/SecurityUnlockedEp20]Nic Fillingham:Hello, and welcome to Security Unlocked, a new podcast from Microsoft where we unlock insights from the latest in news and research from across Microsoft security engineering and operations teams. I'm Nic Fillingham.Natalia Godyla:And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories from Microsoft security, deep dive into the newest threat intel, research, and data science. Nic Fillingham:And profile some of the fascinating people working on Artificial Intelligence in Microsoft security. Natalia Godyla:And now, let's unlock the pod.Nic Fillingham:Hello, Natalia. Welcome to episode 20 of Security Unlocked. This is, uh, an interesting episode. People may notice that your voice is absent from the... This interview that we had with Maria Puertos Calvo. How, how you doing? You okay? You feeling better?Natalia Godyla:I am, thank you. I'm feeling much better, though I am bummed I missed this conversation with Maria. I had so much fun talking with her in episode eight about tackling identity threats with AI. I'm sure this was equally as good. So, give me the scoop. What did you and Maria talk about?Nic Fillingham:It was a great conversation. So, you know, this is our 20th episode, which is kind of crazy, of Security Unlocked, and we get... We're getting some great feedback from listeners. Please, send us more, we want to hear your thoughts on the... On the podcast. But there've been a number of episodes where people contact us afterwards on Twitter or an email and say, "Hey, that guest was amazing," you know, "I wanna hear more." And Maria was, was definitely one of those guests who we got feedback that they'd love for us to invite them back and learn more about their story. So, Maria is on the podcast today to tell us about her journey into security and then her path to Microsoft. I won't give much away, but I will say that, if you're studying and you're considering a path into cyber security, or you're considering a path into data science, I think you're gonna really enjoy Maria's story, how she sort of walks through her academia and then her time into Microsoft. We talk about koalas and we talk about the perfect taco.Natalia Godyla:Yeah, to pair with the guac which she covered the first time around. Now tacos. I feel like we're building a meal here. I'm kind of digging the idea of a Security Unlocked recipe book. I, I think we need some kind of mocktail or cocktail to pair with this.Nic Fillingham:Yeah, I do think two recipes might not be enough to qualify for a recipe book. Natalia Godyla:Yeah, I mean, I'm feeling ambitious. I think... I think we could get more recipes, fill out a book. But with that, I, I cannot wait to hear Maria's episode. So, on with the pod?Nic Fillingham:On with the pod.Nic Fillingham: Maria Puertos Calvo, welcome back to the Security Unlocked podcast. How are you doing?Maria Puertos Calvo:Hi, I'm doing great, Nic. Thank you so much for having me back. I am super flattered you guys, like, invited me for the second time.Nic Fillingham:Yeah, well, thank you very much for coming back. The episode that we, we, we first met you on the podcast was episode eight which we called Tackling Identity Threats With AI, which was a really, really popular episode. We got great feedback from listeners and we thought, uh, let's, let's bring you back and hear a bit more about your, your own story, about how you got into security, how you got into identity, how you got into AI. And then sort of how you found your way to Microsoft. Nic Fillingham:But since we last spoke, I want to get the timeline right. Did you have twins in that period of time or had the twins already happened when we spoke to you in episode eight?Maria Puertos Calvo:(laughs) No, the twins had already happened. They-Nic Fillingham:Got it.Maria Puertos Calvo:I think it's been a few months. But they're, they are nine, nine months old now. Yeah.Nic Fillingham:Nine months old. And, and the other interesting thing is you're now in Spain.Maria Puertos Calvo:Yes.Nic Fillingham:When we spoke to you last, you were in the Redmond area or is that right?Maria Puertos Calvo:Yes, yes. The... Last time when we, we spoke, I, I was in Seattle. But I was about to make this, like, big trip across the world to come to Spain and, and the reason was, actually, you know, that the twins hadn't met my family. I am originally from Spain, and, and my whole family is, is here. And, you know, because of COVID and everything that happened, they weren't able to travel to the US to see us when they were born. So, my husband and I decided to just, like, you know, do a trip and take them. And, and we're staying here for a few months now. Nic Fillingham:That's awesome. I've been to Madrid and I've been to... I think I've only been to Madrid actually. Where, where... Are you in that area? What part of Spain are you in?Maria Puertos Calvo:Yes, yes. I'm in Madrid. I'm in Madrid. I, I'm from Madrid.Nic Fillingham:Aw- awesome. Beautiful city. I love it. So, obviously, we met you in episode eight, but if you could give us, uh, a little sort of mini reintroduction to who you are, what's your job at Microsoft, what does your... What does your day-to-day look like, that'd be great.Maria Puertos Calvo:Yeah. So, I am the lead data scientist in identity secure and protection, identity security team who... We are in charge of making sure that all of the users who use, uh, Microsoft identity services, either Azure Active Directory or Microsoft account, are safe and protected from malicious, you know, uh, cyber criminals. So, so, my team builds the algorithms and detections that are then put into, uh, protections. Like, for example, we build machine learning for risk based authentication. So, if we... If our models think an authentication is, is probably compromised, then maybe that authentication is challenged with MFA or blocked depending on the configuration of the tenet, et cetera. Maria Puertos Calvo:So, my team's day-to-day activities are, you know, uh, uh, building new detections using new data sets across Microsoft. We have so much data between, you know, logs and APIs and interactions b- between all of our customers with Microsoft systems. Uh, so, so, we analyze the data and, and we build models, uh, apply AI machine learning to detect those bad activities in the ecosystem. It could be, you know, an account compromised a sign-in that looks suspicious, but also fraud. Let's say, like, somebody, uh, creates millions of spammy email addresses with Microsoft account, for example to do bad things to the ecosystem, we're also in charge of detecting that.Nic Fillingham:Got it. So, every time I log in, or every time I authenticate with either my Azure Active Directory account for work or my personal Microsoft account, that authentication, uh, event flows through a set of systems and potentially a set of models that your team owns. And then if they're... And if that authentication is sort of deemed legitimate, I'm on my way to the service that I'm accessing. And if it's deemed not legitimate, it can go for a challenge through MFA or it'll be blocked? Did, did I get that right?Maria Puertos Calvo:You got that absolutely right.Nic Fillingham:So, that means... And I think we might've talked about this on the last podcast, but I still... I... As a long-term employee of Microsoft, I still get floored by the, the sheer scale of all this. So, there's... I mean, there's hundreds of millions of Microsoft account users, because that's the consumer service. So, that's gonna be everything from X-Box and Hotmail and Outlook.com and using the Bing website. So, that's, that's literally in the hundreds of millions realm. Is it... Is it a billion or is it... Is it just hundreds of millions?Maria Puertos Calvo:It depends on how you count them. Uh, if it's per day, it's hundreds of millions, per month I think it's close to a billion. Yes, for... Of users. But the number of authentications overall is much higher, 'cause, you know, the users are authenticating in s- in s- many cases, many, many times a day. A lot of what we evaluate is not only, like, your username and password authentications, there's also the, you know, the model authe- authentication particles that have your tokens cash in the application and those come back for request for access. So, the... We evaluate those as well. Maria Puertos Calvo:So, it's, uh... It's actually tens of billions of authentications a day for both the Microsoft account system and the Azure Active Directory system. Azure Active Directory is also a... Really big, uh, it's almost... It's, it's getting really close to Microsoft account in terms of monthly, monthly active users. And actually, this year, with, you know, COVID, and everybody, you know, the... All the schools, uh, going remote and so many people going to work from home, we have seen a huge increase in, in, in monthly active users for Azure Active Directory as well.Nic Fillingham:And do you treat those two systems separately? Uh, or, or are they essentially the same? It's the same anomaly detection and it's the same sort of models that you'd use to score and determine if a... If an authentication attempt is, is, uh, is legitimate or, or otherwise?Maria Puertos Calvo:It's, like, theoretically the same. You know, like, we, we use the same methodology. But then there are different... The, the two systems are different. They live in different places with different architectures. The data that is logged i- is different. So, these, these were initially not, you know... I- identity only, uh, took care of those two systems, like, a few years ago, before they w- used to be owned by different teams. So, the architecture underneath is still different. So, we still have to build different models and maintain them differently and, you know, uh, uh, tune them differently. So, so it is more work, but, uh, the, the theory and the idea, their... How we built them is, is very similar.Nic Fillingham:Are there some sort of trends that have, you know, appeared, having these two massive, massive systems sort of running in parallel but with the same sort of approach? What kind of behaviors or what kind of anomalies do you see detected in one versus the other? Do they sort of function sort of s- similar? Like, similar enough? Or do you see some sort of very different anomalies that appear in one system and, and not another.Maria Puertos Calvo:They're, interestingly, pretty different. Uh, when we see attack spikes and things like that, they don't always reflect one or the other. I think the, the motivation of the people that attack enterprises and organizations, it's, it's definitely from the, the hackers that are attacking consumer accounts. I think they're, you know, they're so in the black market separately, and they're priced separately, you know, and, and differently. And I think they're, they're generally used for different purposes. We see sometimes spikes in correlation, but, but not that much.Nic Fillingham:Before we sort of, uh, jump in to, to your personal story into security, into Microsoft, into, into data science, is the... You know, these... Talking about these sheer numbers, talking about the hundreds of millions of, of authentications, I think you said, like, tens of billions that are happening every day. Is that a dream for a data scientist to just have such a massive volume of data and signals at your fingertips that you can use to go and build models, train models, refine models? Is that, you know... Is this adage of more signal equals better, does that apply? Or at some point do you now have challenges of too much signal and you're now working on a different set of problems?Maria Puertos Calvo:That's a great question. It is an absolute dream and it's also a nightmare. (laughs) So, yeah. It is... It... And I'll tell you why for both, right? Like, a... It is a great dream. Like, obviously, you bet... The, the sheer scale of the data, the, you know, the, the fact... There are a lot of things that are easier, because sometimes when you're working with data and statistics, you have to do a lot of things to estimate if, Maria Puertos Calvo:... it's like the things that you're competing are statistically significant, right? Like, do I have enough data to approach that this sample, it's going to be, uh, reflection of reality, and things like that. With the amount of data that we have, with the amount of users that we have, it's the, we don't have that, we, we don't really have that problem, right? Like we are able to observe, you know, the whole rollout without having to, to figure out if what we're seeing, you know, it's similar to the whole world or not. Maria Puertos Calvo:So that's really cool. Also, because we're, you know, have so many users, then we also have, you know, we're a big focus for attackers. So, so we can see everything, you know, that happens in, in, in the cybersecurity world and like the adversary wall, we can find it in, in our data. And, and that is really interesting. Right. It's, it's really cool. Nic Fillingham:That sounds fascinating. But let, let, let's table that for a second. 'Cause I'd love to sort of go back in time and I'd love to learn about your journey into security, into sort of computer science, into tech, where did it all start? So you grew up in Madrid, is that right? Maria Puertos Calvo:Yes. I grew up in Madrid and when I was finishing high school and I was trying to figure out like, why do I do, I just decided to study telecommunication engineering, it's what's called a Spain, but it's ev- you know, the, the equivalent who asked degrees electrical engineering. Because I was actually, you know, really, really interested in math and science and physics. They were like my favorite subjects in high school. I was pretty, really good at it actually. Maria Puertos Calvo:And, but at the same time, I was like, well, this, you know, an engineering degree sounds like something that I could apply all of this to. And the one that seems like the coolest and the future and like I, I, is electrical engineering. Like I, at that time, computer science was also kind of like my second choice, but I knew that in electrical engineering, I could also learn a lot of computer science. Maria Puertos Calvo:It w- it has like a curriculum that includes a lot of computer science, but also you learn about communication theory and, you know, things like how do cell phones work? And how does television work? And you can learn about computer vision and image processing and all, all kinds of signal processing. I just found it fascinating. Maria Puertos Calvo:So, so I, I started that in college and then when I finished college, it was 2010. So it was right in the middle of the great recession, which actually hits Spain really, really, really badly when it came to the, the labor market, the unemployment back then, I think it was something like 25%-Nic Fillingham:Wow.Maria Puertos Calvo:... and people who were getting out of school, even in engineering degrees, which were traditionally degrees that would have, you know, great opportunities. They were not really getting good jobs. People, only consulting firms were hiring them, um, and, and really paying really, really little money. It was actually pretty kind of a shame. So I said, what, what, what should I do? And I, I had been a good student during college, so, and I had a professor that, you know, he, that I had done my kind of thesis with him and his research group. Maria Puertos Calvo:And he said, "Hey, why didn't you just like, continue studying? Like, you can actually go for your PhD and, because you have really good grades, I'm sure you can just get it full of finance. You can get a scholarship that will like finance, you know, four years of PhD. And you know, that way you don't have to pay for your studies, but also you kind of like, you're like a researcher and you have, uh, like money to live." And I was like, well, that sounds like a really good plan.Nic Fillingham:Sounds good.Maria Puertos Calvo:Like I actually, yeah. So, so I could do in that. And, and I, you know, then my master said, this masters say, wasn't computer science, but it was very pick and choose, right? Like, like you could pick your branch and what classes you took. And so the master's was the first half of the PhD was basically getting all your PhD qualifying courses, which also are equivalent to, to doing your masters. Maria Puertos Calvo:So I picked kind of like the artificial intelligence type branch, which had a lot of, you know, classes on machine learning and learn a lot of things that are apply that are user apply machine learning, it's like, uh, natural language processing and speech and speaker recognition and biometrics and computer vision. Basically, all kinds of fields of artificial intelligence, where, where in the courses that I took. And, and I really, really fou- found it fascinating. There wasn't, you know, a data science degree back then, like now everybody has a data science degree, but this is like 10 years ago. Uh, at least, you know, in Spain, there wasn't a data science degree.Maria Puertos Calvo:But this is like the closest thing, uh, that, and that was my first contact with, uh, you know, artificial intelligence and machine learning. And I, I loved it. And, and then I did my masters thesis on, uh, kind of like, uh, biometrics in, in terms of applying statistical models to forensic fingerprints to, to understand if a person can be falsely, let's say, accused of a crime because their fingerprint brand only matches a fingerprint that is found in a crime scene. Maria Puertos Calvo:So kind of try to figure out like, how likely is that. Because there have been people in the past that having wrongly convicted, uh, because of their fingerprints have been found in a crime scene. And then after the fact they have found the right person and then, you know, like, uh, it's not a very scientific method, what is followed right now. So that, that was a really cool thing too, that then I never did anything related to that in my life, but, but it was a very cool thing to study when I was in, in school. Nic Fillingham:Well, that, that's fair. I've, I've got some questions about that. That's fascinating. So how did you even stumble upon that as a, as a, as a, as a research focus? Was there a, a particular case you might've read in the, in the news or something like, I, I think I've never heard of people being falsely accused or convicted through having the same fingerprints, I guess, unless you're an identical twin. Maria Puertos Calvo:Mm-hmm (affirmative). (laughs) Actually, I can tell you because I have identical twins, but also that, because I studied a lot of our fingerprints is that identical twins do not have the same fingerprints.Nic Fillingham:Wow.Maria Puertos Calvo:Uh, because fingerprints are formed when you're in the womb. So they're not, they're not like a genetic thing. They happen kind of like, as a random pattern when, when your body is forming in the womb, and they happen, they're different. Uh, so, so humans have unique fingerprints and that's true, but the problem with the, the finger frame recognition is that, it's very partial, and is very imperfect because the, the late latent, it's called the latent fingerprint, the one that is found in a crime scene is then recovered, you know, using like some powder, and it's kind of like, you, you just found some, you know, sweaty thing and a surface, and then you have to lift that from there. Right. Maria Puertos Calvo:And, and that has imperfections in, and it only, it's not going to be like a full fingerprint. You're going to have a partial fingerprint. And then, then you, basically, the way the matching works is using this like little poin- points and, and bifurcations of the riches that exist in your fingerprint. And, and then, you know, looking at the, the location and direction of those, then they're matched with other fingerprints to understand if they're the same one or not. But the, because you don't have the full picture, it is possible that you make a mistake. Maria Puertos Calvo:The one case that it's been kind of really, really famous actually happened with the Madrid bombings that happened in 2004, where, you know, they, they blew up, uh, some trains and, and a couple of hundred people died. Then they, they actually found a fingerprint in one of the, I don't remember, like in the crime scene and it actually match in the FBI fingerprint database. It matched the fingerprint of a lawyer from Portland, Oregon, I believe it's what it was. And then he was initially, you know, uh, I don't know if you ended up being convicted, but, but you know, it wasn't-Nic Fillingham:He was a suspect.Maria Puertos Calvo:... it was a really famous case. Yes. I think he was initially convicted. And then, but then he was not after they found the right person and they, they actually found that yeah, both fingerprints, like the, the guy whose fingerprint it really was. And these other guys, they, their fingerprints both match the crime scene fingerprint, but that's only because it was only a piece of it. Right. You, you don't put your finger, like, you don't roll it left to right. Like when you arrive at the airport, right. That they make you roll your finger, and lay have the whole thing it's, you're maybe just, you know, the, the, the criminal fingerprint is, is very small.Nic Fillingham:Was that a big part of the, the research was trying to understand how much of a fingerprint is necessary for a sort of statistically relevant or sort of accurate determination that it belongs to, to the, to the right person?Maria Puertos Calvo:Yeah. So the results of the research they'd have some outcome around, like, depending on how many of those points that are used for identification, which are called minutia, depending on how, how many of those are available, it changes the probability of a random match with a random person, basically. So the more points you have, the less likely it is that will happen. Nic Fillingham:The one thing, like, as, as we're talking about this, that I sort of half remember from maybe being a kid, I don't know, growing up in Australia is don't koalas have fingerprints that are the same as humans. Did I make that up? Do you know anything about this? Maria Puertos Calvo:(laughs) I'm sure, I have no idea. (laughs) I have never heard such a thing. Nic Fillingham:I have a-Maria Puertos Calvo:Now I wanna know. Nic Fillingham:...I'm gonna have to look this up.Maria Puertos Calvo:Yeah.Nic Fillingham:I have a feeling that koa- koalas, (laughs) have fingerprints that are either very close to or indistinguishable from, from humans. I'm gonna look this one up. Maria Puertos Calvo:I wonder if like a koala could ever be wrongly convicted of a crime. Nic Fillingham:Right, right. So like, if I want to go rob a bank in Australia, all I need to do is like, bring a koala with me and leave the koala in the bank after I've successfully exited the bank with all the gold bars in my backpack. And then the police would show up and they arrest the koala and they'd get the fingerprints and they go, well, it must be the koala. Maria Puertos Calvo:Exactly. Nic Fillingham:This is a foolproof plan. Maria Puertos Calvo:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:I'm glad I discussed this with you on the podcast. Thank you, Marie, for validating my poses.Maria Puertos Calvo:Now, now you can't publish this.Nic Fillingham:Oh, we talked about fingerprints. Oh, crumbs you're right. Yeah. Okay. All right. We have to edit this out of the, (laughs) out of there quick. Maria Puertos Calvo:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:Um, okay. I didn't realize we had talked so much about fingerprints. That's my fault, but I found that fascinating. Thank you. So what happens next? Do you then go to Microsoft? Do you come straight out of your education at university in Madrid, straight to Microsoft? Maria Puertos Calvo:Kind of and no. So what happens next is that while I, I finished the master's part of this PhD, and at this time I'm actually dating my now husband, and he's an American, uh, working in Washington D.C. as an electrical engineer. So I, you know, I finished my master's and my, I say, why, why do I kind of wanna go be in the US uh, so I can be with him. And, you know, I have the space, the scholarship they'll actually lets me go do research abroad and you know, like kind of pays for it. So Maria Puertos Calvo:Find, um, another research group in the University of Maryland, College Park, which is really, really close to, to DC. And, and I go there to do research for, uh, six months. So, I spent six months there also doing research. Uh, also using, uh, machine learning for, for a different around iris recognition. And, you know, the six months went by and I was like, "Well, I want to stay a little longer," like, "I, you know, I really like living here," and I extended that, like, another six months. I... And at that point, you know, I wasn't really allowed to do that with my scholarship, so I just asked my professor to, you know, finance me for that time. And, and, uh, and at that time, I decided, like, you know, I, I actually don't think I wanna, like, pursue this whole PHD thing. Maria Puertos Calvo:So, so I stayed six more months working for him, and then I decided I, I, I'm not a really big fan of academia. I went into research in, in grad school in Spain mostly because there weren't other opportunities. I was super, you know, glad I did 'cause I, I love all the research and the knowledge that I gained with all... You know, with my master's where I learned everything about Artificial Intelligence. But at this point, I really, really wanted to go into industry. Uh, so I applied to a lot of jobs in a lot of different companies. You know, figuring out, like, my background is in biometrics and machine learning. Things like that. Data science is not a word that had ever come to my mind that I was or could be, but I was more, like, interested in, like, you know, maybe software roles related to companies that did things that I had a similar background in.Maria Puertos Calvo:For like a few months, I was looking in... I, I didn't even get calls. And I had no work experience other than, you know, I had been through college and grad school. So, I had... You know, and, and I was from Spain and from a Spanish university, and there was really nothing in my resume that was, like, oh, this is like the person we need to call. So, nobody called me. (laughs) And, and then one day, uh, I, I received a LinkedIn message from a Microsoft recruiter. And she says, "Hey, I have... I'm interested in talking to you about, uh, well, Microsoft." So I said, "Oh, my God. That sounds amazing." So, she calls me and we talk about it, and she's like, "Yeah, there's like this team at Microsoft that is like run mostly by data scientists and what they do is they help prevent fraud, abuse, and compromise for a lot of Microsoft online services." Maria Puertos Calvo:So, they, they basically use data and machine learning to do things like stopping spam for Outlook.com, doing, like, family safety like finding, like, things on the web that, that should be, like, not for children. They were also doing, like, phishing detection on the browser. Um, like phishing URL detection on the browser and a co- compromise detection for Microsoft Account. And so I was like, "Sure, that sounds amazing." You know? "I would love to be in the process." And I was actually lying because I did not want to move to Seattle. (laughs) Like, at that time, I was so hopeful that I will find a job at, you know, somewhere in DC on the east coast, which is like closer to Spain and where, where we lived in. But at the same time, you know, Microsoft calls and you don't say no mostly when nobody else is calling you. Maria Puertos Calvo:Um, so, so I said, "Sure, let's, you know, I, uh... The, the least I can do is, like, see how the interview goes." So, I did the phone screen and then I... They, they flew me to Seattle and I had seven interviews and a lunch inter- and a lunch kind of casual interview. So, it was like an eight hour interview. It was from 9:00 to 5:00. And, you know, everything sounded great, the role sounded great. Um, the, the team were... The things that they were doing sounded super interesting. And, to my surprise, the next day when I'm at the airport waiting for my flight to, to go back to DC, the recruiter calls me and says, "Hey, you, you know, you passed the interview and we're gonna make you an offer. You'll have an offer in the... In the mail tomorrow." I was like, "Oh, my God." (laughs) "What?" Like, I could not... This... It's crazy to me that this was, like, only seven years ago, it... But yeah.Nic Fillingham:Oh, this is seven... So, this was 2014, 2013?Maria Puertos Calvo:Uh, actually, when I did the interview, it was... It was more, more... It was longer. It was 2012. Nic Fillingham:2012. Got it.Maria Puertos Calvo:And then I... And then starting my Microsoft in 2013.Nic Fillingham:Got it.Maria Puertos Calvo:I started as a... I think at that time, they called us analysts. But it was funny because the, the team was very proud on the, the fact that they were one of the first teams doing, like, real data science at Microsoft. But there were too many teams at Microsoft calling themselves, and basically only doing, like, analytics and dashboards and things like that. So, because of that, the team that I was in was really proud, and they didn't want to call themselves data scientists, so they... I don't know. We called ourselves, like, analysts PMs, and then we were from that to decision scientists, uh, which I never understood the, the name. (laughs) Uh, but yeah. So, that's how I started.Nic Fillingham:Okay, so, so that first role was in... I heard you say Outlook.com. So, were you in the sort of consumer email pipeline team? Is that sort of where that, that sat?Maria Puertos Calvo:Yeah. Yeah, so, uh, the team was actually called safety platform. It doesn't exist anymore, but it was a team that provided the abuse, fraud, and, and, like, malicious detections for other teams that were... At the time, it was called the Windows live division.Nic Fillingham:Yes.Maria Puertos Calvo:So, all the... All the teams that were part of that division, they were like the browser, right? Like, Internet Explorer, Hotmail, which was after named Outlook.com. And Microsoft Account, which is the consumer ecosystem, we're all part of that. And our team, basically, helped them with detections and machine learning for their, their abusers and fraudsters and, and, you know, hackers that, that could affect their customers. So, my first role was actually in the spam team, anti-spam team. I was on outbound, outbound spam detection. So, uh, we will build models to detect when users who send spam from Outlook.com accounts out so we could stop that mail basically.Nic Fillingham:And I'd loved to know, like, the models that you were building and training and refining then to detect outbound spam, and then the kinds of sort of machine learning technology that you're, you're playing today. Is there any similarity? Or are they just worlds apart? I mean, we are talking seven years and, you know, seven years in technology may as well be, like, a century. But, you know, is there common threads, is there common learnings from back there, or is everything just changed?Maria Puertos Calvo:Yes, both. Like, there, there are, obviously, common threads. You know, the world has evolved, but what really has evolved is the, the, the underlying infrastructure and tools available for people to deploy machine learning models. Like, back then, we... The production machine learning models that were running either in, like, authentication systems, either in off- you know, offline in the background after the fact, or, or even for the... For the mail. The Microsoft developers have to go and, like, code the actual... Let's say that you use, like, I don't know, logistic regression, which is a very typical, easy, uh, machine learning algorithm, right? They had to, like, code that. They had to, you know... There wasn't like a... Like, library that they could call that they would say, "Okay, apply logistic regression to, to this data with these parameters. Maria Puertos Calvo:Back then, it was, like... People had to code their own machine learning algorithms from, like, the math that backs them, right? So, that was actually... Make things so much, you know, harder. They... There weren't, like, the tools to actually, like, do, like, data manipulation, visualization, modeling, tuning, the way that we have so many things today. So, that, you know, made things kind of hard. Nothing was... Nothing was, like, easy to use for the data scientists. It... There was a lot of work around, you know, how do you... Like, manual labor. It was like, "Okay, I'm gonna, like, run the model with these parameters, and then, like, you know, b- based on the results, you would change that and tweak it a little bit. Maria Puertos Calvo:Today, you have programs that do that for you. And, and then show you all the results in, like, a super cool graph that tells you, uh, you know, like, this is the exact parameters you need to use for maximizing this one, uh, you know, output. Like, if you want to maximize accuracy or precision or recall. That, that is just, like, so much easier.Nic Fillingham:That sounds really fascinating. So, Maria, you now... You now run a team. And I, I would love to sort of get your thoughts on what makes a great data scientist and, and what do you look for when you're hiring into, into your team or into sort of your, your broader organization under, uh, under identity. What perspectives and experience and skills are you trying to sort of add in and how do you find it? Maria Puertos Calvo:Oh, what a great question. Uh, something that I'm actually... That's... The, the answer of that is something I'm refining every day. The, you know, the more, uh, experience I get and the more people I hire. I, I feel like it's always a learning process. It's like, what works and what doesn't. You know, I try to be open-minded and not try to hire everybody to be like me. So, that's... I'm trying to learn from all the people that I hire that are good. Like, what are their, you know... What's, like, special about them that I should try to look in other people that I hire. But I would say, like, some common threads, I think, it's like... Really good communication skills. Maria Puertos Calvo:Like, o- obviously the basics of, you know, being... Having s- a strong background in statistical modeling and machine learning is key. Uh, but many people these days have that. The, the main knowledge is really important in our team because when you apply data science to cyber security, there are a lot of things that make the job really hard. One of them is the, the data is... What... It's called really imbalanced because there are mostly, most of the interactions with, with the system, most of the data represents good activities, and the bad activities are very few and hard to find. They're like maybe less than 1%. So, that makes it harder in general to, to, to get those detections. Maria Puertos Calvo:And the other problem is that you're in an adversarial environment, which means, you know, you're not detecting, you know, a crosswalk in, in a road. Like, it's a typical problem of, of computer vision these days. A crosswalk's gonna be a crosswalk today or tomorrow, but if I detect an attacker in the data today and then we enforce... We do something to stop that attacker or to... Or to get them detected, then the next day they might do things differently because they're going to adapt to what you're doing. So, you need to build machine learning models or detections that are robust enough that use, use what we call features or, or that look at data that it's not going to be easy... Easily gameable. Maria Puertos Calvo:And, and it's really easy to just say, "Oh, you know, there's an attack coming from, I don't know, like, pick a country, like, China. Let's just, like, make China more important in our algorithm." But, like, maybe tomorrow that same attacker just fakes IP addresses Maria Puertos Calvo:Addresses in, in a bot that, that is not in China. It's in, I don't know, in Spain. So, so, you just have to, you know, really get deep into, like, what it means to do data science in our own domain and, and, and gain that knowledge. So, that knowledge, for me, is, is important but it's also something that, that you can gain in the job. But then things like the ability to adapt and, and then also the ability to communicate with all their stakeholders what the data's actually telling us. Because it's, you know... You, you need to be able to tell a story with the data. You need to be able to present the data in a way that other people can understand it, or present the results of your research in, in a way that other people can understand it and really, uh, kind of buy your ideas or, or what you wanna express. And I think that that is really important as well.Nic Fillingham:I sort of wanted to touch on what role... Is there a place in data science for people that, that don't have a sort of traditional or an orthodox or a linear path into the field? Can you come from a different discipline? Can you come from sort of an informal education or background? Can you be self-taught? Can you come from a completely different industry? What, what sort of flexibility exists or should there exist for adding in sort of different perspectives and, and sort of diversity in, in this particular space of machine learning?Maria Puertos Calvo:Yes. There are... Actually, because it's such a new discipline, when I started at Microsoft, none of us started our degrees or our careers thinking that we wanted to go into data science. And my team had people who had, you know, degrees in economics, degrees in psychology, degrees in engineering, and then they had arrived to data science through, through different ways. I think data science is really like a fancy way of saying statistics. It's like big data statistics, right? It's like how do we, uh, model a lot of data to, like, tell us to do predictions, or, or tell us like what, how the data is distributed, or, or how different data based on different data points looks more like it's this category or this other category. So, it's all really, like, from the field of statistics.Maria Puertos Calvo:And statistics is used in any type of research, right? Like, when you... When people in medicine are doing studies or any other kind of social sciences are doing studies, they're using a lot of that, and, and they're more and more using, like, concepts that are really related to what we use in, in data science. So, in that sense, it's, it's really possible to come to a lot of different fields. Generally, the, the people who do really well as data scientists are people who have like a PhD and have then this type of, you know, researching i- but it doesn't really matter what field. I actually know that there, there are some companies out there that their job is to, like, get people that come out of PhD's programs, but they don't have like a... Like a very, you know, like you said, like a linear path to data science, and then, they kind of, like, do like a one year training thing to, like, make them data scientists, because they do have, like, the... All the background in terms of, like, the statistics and the knowledge of the algorithms and everything, but they... Maybe they're, they've been really academic and they're not... They don't maybe know programming or, or things that are more related to the tech or, or they're just don't know how to handle the data that is big. Maria Puertos Calvo:So, they get them ready for... To work in the industry, but the dat- you know, I've met a lot of them in, in, in, in my career, uh, people who have gone through these kind of programs, and some of them are PhDs in physics or any other field. So, that's pretty common. In the self-taught role, it's also very possible. I think people who, uh, maybe started as, like, software engineers, for example, and then there's so much content out there that is even free if you really wanna learn data science and machine learning. You can, you know, go from anything from Coursera to YouTube, uh, things that are free, things that are paid, but that you can actually gain great knowledge from people who are the best in the world at teaching this stuff. So, definitely possible to do it that way as well.Nic Fillingham:Awesome. Before we let you go, we talked about the perfect guacamole recipe last time because you had that in your Twitter profile.Maria Puertos Calvo:Mm-hmm (affirmative). (laughs)Nic Fillingham:Do you recall that? I'm not making this up, right? (laughs)Maria Puertos Calvo:I do. No. (laughs)Nic Fillingham:All right. So, w- so we had the perfect guacamole recipe. I wondered what was your perfect... I- is it like... I wanted to ask about tacos, like, what your thoughts were on tacos, but I, I don't wanna be rote. I don't wanna be, uh, too cliché. So, maybe is there another sort of food that you love that you would like to leave us with, your sort of perfect recipe?Maria Puertos Calvo:(laughs) That's really funny. I, I actually had tacos for lunch today. That is, uh... Yeah. (laughs)Nic Fillingham:You did? What... Tell me about it. What did you have?Maria Puertos Calvo:I didn't make them, though. I, I went out to eat them. Uh-Nic Fillingham:Were they awesome? Did you love them?Maria Puertos Calvo:They were really good, yeah. So, I think it's-Nic Fillingham:All right. Tell us about those tacos.Maria Puertos Calvo:Tacos is one of my favorite foods. But I actually have a taco recipe that I make that it's... I find it really good and really easy. So, it's shrimp tacos.Nic Fillingham:Okay. All right.Maria Puertos Calvo:So, it's, it's super easy. You just, like, marinate your shrimp in, like, a mix of lime, Chipotle... You know those, like, Chipotle chilis that come in a can and with, like, adobo sauce?Nic Fillingham:Yeah, the l- it's got like a little... It's like a half can. And in-Maria Puertos Calvo:Yeah, and it's, like, really dark, the sauce, and-Nic Fillingham:Really dark I think. And in my house, you open the can and you end up only using about a third of it and you go, "I'm gonna use this later," and then you put it in the fridge.Maria Puertos Calvo:Yes, and it's like-Nic Fillingham:And then it... And then you find it, like, six months later and it's evolved and it's semi-sentient. But I know exactly what you're talking about.Maria Puertos Calvo:Exactly. So that... You, you put, like, some of those... That, like, very smokey sauce that comes in that can or, or you can chop up some of the chili in there as well. And then lime and honey. And that's it. You marinate your shrimp in that and then you just, like, cook them in a pan. And then you put that in a tortilla, you know, like corn preferably. But you can use, you know, flour if that's your choice. Uh, and then you make your taco with the... That shrimp, and then you put, like... You, you pickle some sliced red onions very lightly with some lime juice and some salt, maybe for like 10 minutes. You put that on... You know, on your shrimp, and then you can put some shredded cabbage and some avocado, and ready to go. Delicious shrimp tacos for a week night.Nic Fillingham:Fascinating. I'm gonna try this recipe. Maria Puertos Calvo:Okay.Nic Fillingham:Sounds awesome.Maria Puertos Calvo:Let me know.Nic Fillingham:Maria, thank you again so much for your time. This has been fantastic having you back. The last question, I think it's super quick, are you hiring at the moment, and if so, where can folks go to learn about how they may end up potentially being on your team or, or being in your group somewhere?Maria Puertos Calvo:Yes, I am actually. Our team is doubling in size. I am hiring data scientists in Atlanta and in Dublin right now. So, we're gonna be, you know, a very, uh, worldly team, uh, 'cause I'm based in Seattle. So, if you go to Microsoft jobs and search in hashtag identity jobs, I think, uh, all my jobs should be listed there. Um, looking for, you know, data scientists, as I said, to work on fraud and, and cyber security and it's a... It's a great team. Hopefully, yeah, if you're... If that's something you're into, please, apply.Nic Fillingham:Awesome. We will put the link in the show notes. Thank you so much for your time. It's been a great conversation.Maria Puertos Calvo:Always a pleasure, Nic. Thank you so much. Natalia Godyla:Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security, from research to Artificial Intelligence. Keep an eye out for our next episode.Nic Fillingham:And don't forget to tweet us @msftsecurity or email us at securityunlocked@microsoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on a future episode. Until then, stay safe.Natalia Godyla:Stay secure.