Safety Detective’s Aviva Zacks sat down with Avira’s CEO Travis Witteveen to find out how consumers can protect themselves from hackers threatening their smart devices.
Safety Detective: Can you tell me a bit about your background, including how you got into cybersecurity?
Travis Witteveen: I joined a networking company in the early 90s called FTP Software. They were developing TCP/IP stacks for Windows computers, which is the underlying protocol of the entire Internet. In the early 90s, the Internet existed, but it still wasn’t popular. Our board member, Vincent Cerf, who is considered the founder of the Internet and currently works for Google, was pushing our company to promote this protocol and this technology to businesses globally. I saw all the amazing things we could do with the Internet, but then once everybody was getting connected, we also started seeing the bad things that can happen, too.
I started paying attention to the security side of things. I recognized that people should be able to use the Internet safely without worrying about what will happen to their data, their files, or anything else of importance, which meant networking security and firewall technologies, protecting company networks.
I joined a consumer-facing company called F-Secure in the late 90s, which enabled Internet service providers to provide security as an additional service to Internet connections for consumers’ homes. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to help consumers use the Internet without worrying about the dangers.
SD: What does Avira do to protect consumers from cyberthreats?
TW: Avira services tens of millions of consumers globally. We do everything from protecting laptops, PCs, Mac computers, and mobile phones, to more recently, protecting smart home devices that connect to the Internet, too.
SD: What are the current cyberthreats that consumers should be concerned about these days?
TW: Malware continues to be at a high-level, but it’s not growing exponentially anymore, compared to other new threats. There are still traditional threats like phishing, where hackers try to grab information or get you to provide them with private information.
But we are starting to see the first new attacks on smart home devices. They are inadvertently leaking an unbelievable amount of private data about their owners and their lifestyle, and they are starting to get hacked. We’ve already seen the first video cameras and baby monitors getting hacked, and there are malware threats occurring where one device infects another device. The threat landscape has gone beyond the traditional Windows or Mac computer, and it’s spread to any kind of connected device you might have in your home.
SD: How is Avira able to protect people from smart home device threats?
TW: In our Android and Windows consumer products (other types of devices on the horizon), we have a free service called Home Guard. It lets the users know if there are vulnerabilities, weak passwords, or anything else that could potentially threaten their safety or privacy. So that’s the beginning of the solution.
We are also releasing a new product this month called Safe Things, which is a firewall for the home. We have taken the technology enterprises have been using for decades and turning it into an easy-to-use home device. This device not only identifies and manages what’s happening, but also monitors your system. It will alert you if your connected devices are misbehaving or unexpectedly communicating with other devices. It will also update you when your door lock system needs to have a new patch, so you’re not exposed to break-in risks. This is our newest product that we’re bringing out this year.
SD: In addition to Home Guard, are there other ways you are setting yourself apart from other antivirus companies?
TW: Our tagline is “Protecting People in the Connected World.” And so, we have a relatively large suite called Avira Free Security that a normal user needs to be safe on the net. We have classical antivirus products, password management, and performance optimization tools. We also offer software updating tools that keep your systems and your devices up to date, as well as privacy advisors which help you lock down your system and only shares data you want to share. We have VPN technologies to communicate on the Internet securely and anonymously or to access information in a secure and private manner. And all this, we bundled into one big product, including the IoT side.
And if you compare us feature to feature, Avast is probably the closest one to us, but we already have a few more services that we provide for free to consumers. So, it’s basically consumer-focused and covers every consumer risk that we can identify. We do it using all the newest technologies, like machine learning, so that the system footprint is very light, but the user is able to do whatever they want to do online without worry.
SD: Do you primarily provide services to consumers?
TW: In addition to selling to end users, we package Avira up for third-party vendors. Companies like Juniper and Barracuda (US) and McAfee and WeChat (China) are buying our technology and putting it into their products to make their products safer for their enterprise and consumer customers. That’s something unusual that only a few other security vendors are doing, which empowers other vendors to deliver more security to their customers.
SD: How do you see the future of cybersecurity progressing?
Avira: I wish we could say it’s getting safer, but the opposite is occurring. The smart home technologies and IoT devices are bringing new manufacturers into the market, but the focus is not on security, but functionality. Security is still an afterthought and we have seen an explosion in privacy and data breaches, infections, and spying. That’s one thing going in the wrong direction because the manufacturers value functionality over security.
Then the other side, we see hackers moving away from malware as the operating systems of Windows, Mac, Android, and IOS are getting more secure. We are seeing many more identity thefts, data breaches, and credential breaches occurring. I think we’ll see a major trend in the industry going to focusing more on protecting the person’s identity. It’s already started, but we’ll continue to see more and more services around identity privacy.
SD: How does Avira stay ahead of the curve?
Avira: Being involved and providing solutions today builds awareness of what’s going to happen tomorrow. Our threat researchers are contemplating how threats might make users feel so insecure that they aren’t enjoying the power and capability or connectivity. We are learning all the time and watching.
I’ll give you an example of a Samsung-connected TV. It is a full-blown computer system, but it’s actually a marketing tool as well. When you install a Samsung TV in your home, it scans your entire home to see what other devices are there.
It starts publishing data to ad networks and tracking services that, in turn, leverage your data to know more about you, your income status, family size, and structure. Are you married? Do you have children? When are you at home or out? What TV programs do you watch, stream, or download? What are your preferences, what devices do you have, how connected is your home?
This is where we’re heavily involved right now. Because even though you might trust Samsung, there are many other devices uploading the data that you don’t trust.
SD: It sounds like Avira knows how to protect us from these dangers, even if we have no idea.
TW: Exactly. We need to take that challenge away from the consumer. It’s too complicated.