Welcome to the Gangnam area of Seoul, South Korea – one of trendiest and most expensive neighborhoods in all of Asia. Here you’ll find opulent homes, high-end shops and posters of Gangnam’s most famous son: Korean pop singer Psy (yes, the guy that dances like he’s riding a horse). In Gangnam, it’s not hard to track down a good restaurant or a $2,000 suit. But look closer and you’ll find an agency called Korean Information Technology Research Institute (KITRI) that is training some of Asia’s most elite cyber security warriors.
The KITRI facility in Gangnam looks straight out of a Matrix movie with a high-end cyber war room, lecture halls and labs. KITRI runs a program called the “Best of the Best” (BoB for short) and the students that make it here have gone through a brutally competitive selection process from the best high schools and colleges around in South Korea. Walking around you quickly notice a large room in the corner that looks more like a television studio than a workspace for the cyber elite. There’s a podium, television cameras and a press-conference-like arrangement of seats. “What’s that?” I asked, after giving a lecture to the students, expecting to hear about some leasing arrangement they had with a local broadcaster. But instead, I learned that the Best of the Best are expected to be expert communicators as well as expert researchers. They are taught how to express their ideas in front of a crowd, how to handle media interviews and how to communicate the value of security to business and government leaders. Some of the participants are sent to international cyber security gatherings like RSA Conference to get a global perspective. KITRI is not only training the next generations of security leaders, its creating ambassadors for the field. KITRI’s first crop of students are preparing to make their way into South Korean businesses and government agencies – the idea being that securing large South Korean businesses is critical to ensuring the growth and prosperity of the nation.
If you take a broader look some of the most developed countries in Asia you’ll see the quick ascent of cyber security as an agenda item at the national and corporate levels. Singapore for example, has recently published and funded an aggressive five-year National Cyber Security Masterplan. In Japan, you’ll find organizations like the Japan Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center (JPCERT) actively engaging with industry and local government. For the better part of 2013, I lived in Singapore with my family and spent nearly every week in a different country in the Asia-Pacific region talking to companies and government agencies about cyber security. What I learned is that targeted threats – the kind that come from other nations – run rampant in Asia. Beyond that, hacktivism has become a constant threat for government agencies, utilities, critical infrastructure and businesses that are at odds with the tech-savvy population. Pedestrian malware attacks – the kind that were designed to infect as many people as possible – are much less of a problem in places like Japan and Korea than they are in other parts of the world. Much of it has to do with a lack of malware localization. Japan, for example, boasts one of the lowest malware infection rates in the world according to Microsoft’s “Security Intelligence Report.” It’s neighbor Korea is not far behind. In conversations with KRCERT and JPCERT, the fact that most mass-market malware and phishing campaigns are in English is a significant factor, but not to be discounted is the nation-level commitment that is being made to improve the cyber security posture of their respective citizenries.
The short-term results in these Asian nations are the nurturing of a community of security professionals that are more prepared to deal with a rapidly changing environment. The long-term success of these programs will be measured much more broadly than just pedestrian malware infection rates. In the meantime there is much to be learned from programs like “Best of the Best” and others in Asia as we face a complex threat landscape that cuts across borders.