Mastercard introduces AI-powered cybersecurity

Cybersecurity remains one of the hottest topics around. While browsing today’s media I noted one article said that cyber attacks rose by 250% during the pandemic. Apparently it was the perfect time for scammers and hackers to wield their weapons.

This may be one of the things that prompted Mastercard to launch Cyber Secure, “a first-of-its-kind, AI-powered suite of tools that allows banks to assess cyber risk across their ecosystem and prevent potential breaches.”


It all comes down to the fact that the digital economy is expanding rapidly and is more complex. Alongside this positive news, comes the less appealing revelation that the growth creates a vulnerability that some are delighted to take advantage of.  For example,it is estimated that one business will fall victim to a ransomware attack every 11 seconds by next year.


Ajay Bhalla, president, Cyber & Intelligence, Mastercard said:

“The world today faces a $5.2 trillion cyber breach problem. This is one of the biggest threats to consumer trust. At Mastercard, we aim to stay ahead of fraudsters and to continually evolve and enhance our protection of cyber environments for our bank and merchant customers. With Cyber Secure, we have a suite of AI-powered cyber capabilities that allows us to do just that, ensuring trust across every experience, for businesses and consumers.” 


Cyber Secure will enable banks “to continuously monitor and track their cyber posture,” writes Polly Harrison. It will allow banks to be more proactive in managing and preventing data compromise, as well as protecting the integrity of the payment ecosystem and consumer data. It should also, of course, prevent financial loss caused by attacks.

Mastercard has based its new product on the AI capapbilities of RickRecon, which it purchased in 2020. It uses advanced AI for risk assessment, which evaluates multiple public and proprietary data sources and checks it against 40 security and infrastructure criteria.

Harrison writes, “In 2019, Mastercard saved stakeholders $20bn of fraud through its AI-enabled cyber systems,” so it is to be hoped that Cyber Secure prevents even more theft in 2021 and beyond.

Is Google Pay a bank-killer app?

Google has relaunched the Google Pay app. The new app, allows consumers and businesses to send and receive money. In the case of individuals, they can send money to anyone on their phone contact list, and businesses can accept payments with just their name or a QR code. Most importantly, the new version of Google Pay allows us to do all this without having to purchase any additional hardware and doesn’t depend on payments being made through via a card terminal. As Daniel Döderlein writes at Forbes: “The difference from the old Google Pay is massive, not only in features and focus, but in the effects it will have on the market.”

He illustrates the difference the new Google Pay will make when compared with, say, a system like Apple Pay. He says, “If Company A serves consumers with a payment tool, such as an app on a device that can hold a card they serve the consumer side.” This is because the merchants need to have hardware to accept a payment. This model limits Company A to using existing networks such as Visa and Mastercard. The old Google Pay used this NFC wallet model, which is called ‘one-sided’.

Google has now shifted its focus away from NFC wallets and made a decision to go ‘two-sided’. This flies in the face of the received wisdom coming from the major card issuers. “The card industry, with Visa and MasterCard at the helm, has spent billions on telling the world that NFC is the best thing since sliced bread and that contactless payments will rule the world,” Döderlein writes, adding that while tapping your card on a card terminal might seem amazing, it’s hardly “mind blowing.” Consumer expectations are rising, and the physical store-bound hardware-based payment scenario is becoming outdated. Döderlein argues, “you can’t ignore the fact that people browse, explore, interact with and shop on their phone, often miles away from the merchant.”

People want payment methods to be even easier and more streamlined. They may want to buy and pay for something on their phone, and then collect it at the store. Removing the card payment hardware from the equation makes that possible.

This is what Google is aware of, although it is by no means the first. “AliPay, Venmo, Zelle, Swish, Mobilepay and a handful of others around the world have already reached more than 1.5 billion users based on this model,” Döderlein reminds us. He added, “The new Google Pay is a bank killer and it also brings a huge stab to the card networks on its path.”

The new Google Pay is a two-sided, proprietary mobile payment network that will address its clients directly, both consumers and merchants, rather than through a partnership with a bank, for example. This could make a big dent in the existing card payment network businesses, because payments will be pulled from a person’s account without the card networks being involved.

It will certainly affect the banks, traditional and challenger. Having a bank account was the main way to obtain a debit or credit card, now Google Pay makes it unnecessary to carry that card around with you.

The model has already been proved to work in China with AliPay and in the Nordic countries it has made payment networks bigger than that of cards.

Google clearly knows it will have a fight on its hands with the card networks, but its willingness to go forward with it, indicates that it is looking to the long term. And as Döderlein says, “it means business.”

There will be a number of losers in the banking world, but the winners are merchants and consumers. Real mobile payments are on their way and that’s a winner for all of us.

How governments snoop on us

Non-profit Privacy International (PI) has revealed how the EU funds surveillance techniques using development aid programmes. These include training security forces in non-EU countries. Privacy International and other campaigners are demanding reform of EU aid in respect of this, demanding they “do not facilitate the use of surveillance which violates fundamental rights.”

PI learnt of the situation following the public release of documents that revealed:

  • Police and security agencies in Africa and the Balkans are trained with the EU’s support in spying on internet and social media users and using controversial surveillance techniques and tools
  • EU bodies are training and equipping border and migration authorities in non-member countries with surveillance tools
  • Civipol, a well-connected French security company, is developing mass biometric systems with EU aid funds in Western Africa in order to stop migration and facilitate deportations without adequate risk assessments.

In an article, Thomas Brewster discusses how CEPOL, the EU’s law enforcement training agency, taught security personnel in Europe and Africa, on how to use malware to access citizen’s phones and monitor social media. As PI points out, some of the countries that EU aid for this type of surveillance was given to, are those with a history of human rights abuses. Which is why PI and other organisations want to press the EU to change its funding programme.

Edin Omanovic, advocacy director of Privacy International, said: ““Instead of helping people who face daily threats from unaccountable surveillance agencies, including activists, journalists and people just looking for better lives, this ‘aid’ risks doing the very opposite.”

He added, “The EU as the world’s largest provider of aid and a powerful force for change… failure to reform is a betrayal not just of the purpose of aid and the people it’s supposed to benefit, but of the EU’s own values.”

In the EU parliament, MEP Markéta Gregorová, who works in the EU group on surveillance reforms, commented: “We just made it much harder to export cyber-surveillance and it is unacceptable that at the same time our own law enforcement agencies are training dictators to spy on their people and even recommend surveillance software. This is unacceptable and irreconcilable with our values and screams for reform.”

According to some of the training materials obtained by PI, there are those promoting iPhone hacking tools like GrayKey. For example, in a training session for Morocco, the participants were told that by using Graykey and Axiom together, security personnel would be able to “grab the Apple keychain from within the iPhone, granting it access to apps and the data within.” Morocco is a good example of the reason PI is so determined to change the EU aid programme, as the country has for some time been accused of targeting iPhones to track the activity of journalists and all kinds of activists. In another example, found in the documents, Spain’s Policia Nacional, a CEPOL partner, trained authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina on using malware to remotely control devices. The files also show how CEPOL and European police are encouraging foreign governments to spy on social networks.

It is unfortunate that the PI revelations come at exactly the same time as the EU announced it would be curtailing the export of particular surveillance tools, which they claim is a move that supports global human rights, saying, “We have set an important example for other democracies to follow.”

PI’s response to the statement was that it “critically undermined by the fact that EU agencies are themselves secretly promoting the use of techniques which pose serious threats.”

It would appear that while the European Parliament and Council are legislating to stop surveillance abuses, CEPOL and European police are doing the opposite. This kind of situation where the left hand apparently doesn’t know what the right is doing, is exactly one where those who wish to undermine the EU will look for ammunition. It must get its house in order on this important issue.

Is it too soon to talk about a virus-based battery?

Futurist writer Leon Okwatch, poses an interesting idea in his latest Medium post. He suggests that viruses could be used to manufacture batteries in the future. This may not be quite the right time for any positive mentions of what Okwatch calls, “nature’s microscopic zombies,” but then again, perhaps it is the perfect time to understand how they can be harnessed for a good use.

Okwatch also points out something that many of us may not have thought about: the global reliance on batteries has increased at speed. Not only are they required for basic electronic devices (my Apple mouse uses them at an alarming rate), but the advent of electric cars also ups demand for batteries. As a result there is a need for better, more reliable and higher energy batteries, and viruses might be the solution.

How would viruses be used in batteries?

According to Okwatch, back in 2009, Angela Belcher, a professor of bioengineering at MIT, demonstrated a lithium-ion battery that used viruses to assemble its electrodes. The inspiration for her experiment came from “studying organisms that can grow incredibly strong structures by using chemicals found in nature.”

Citing the example of the way in which an abalone snail builds a strong shell by gathering calcium molecules, a process that is encoded in the snail’s DNA, Belcher worked on the basis that an organism’s DNA could be tweaked “so that it can attract conductive materials such as gold or copper.” She then looked at viruses because it’s easy to alter their DNA.

Belcher experimented with M13 bacteriophage, a virus that only infects bacteria and is therefore harmless to us humans. It had a further advantage: its genome is quite easy to manipulate.

Through genetic engineering, Belcher created a virus that encodes proteins that can latch onto metals that act as semiconductors.

Another upside to working with a virus in this way is that whilst billions of virus copies are need to make a battery, it’s relatively easy to produce at this quantity, because they multiply rapidly in the bacterial host. Furthermore, she “proved that her genetically modified viruses can be used to make batteries that are thin, flexible, and able to fit into non-standard shapes,” Okwatch says. And she has a US patent to prove it!

Why do we want virus-based batteries?

In brief, because we want more powerful batteries that are able to be recharged faster.

A battery created with a virus shortens the path of the electrons moving through it. This results in increasing the battery’s charge and discharge rate, giving it additional energy capacity and a longer cycle life, as well as a faster charge rate. That’s very important for electric car owners.

A virus-based battery is also more environmentally friendly, because the conventional battery uses toxic chemicals, whereas with belcher’s method all that is needed is the electrode’s metal, water, and genetically modified viruses.

Why don’t we have these batteries?

If Belcher first demonstrated this in 2009, what’s the hold up in producing these more eco-friendly batteries? As with many discoveries like this, scalability is the issue when it comes to launching a commercial product.

As Okwatch points out, “The goal is to find a sweet spot where we can achieve economies of scale without compromising on the quality, efficiency, and reliability of the product.”

Viruses have for centuries been feared as the agents of death and disease, with 2020 being the perfect illustration of our sentiment about them. However, they also have unique properties that can be utilised for good, and batteries may not be the only product where viruses play a leading role in the future. As Okwatch says, “nature offers a new frontier to solve problems that haven’t been solved so far.”