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Real Problem’s Cybersecurity, Not Local Data: Tom Leighton Cofounder, Akamai Technologies

Too many laws around data may end up balkanizing the internet, says Tom Leighton, co-founder of Akamai Technologies, the world’s biggest content delivery network. The academic turned-entrepreneur says that laws alone won’t solve issues around data and privacy. In an interview with ET’s Vinod Mahanta, Leighton talks about data legislation, cyber security threats and the creation of scalable technology infrastructure. Edited excerpts:

The Reserve Bank of India directed payment systems and platforms to store data on financial transactions within the country. Do you see issues pertaining to data integrity and security, given the sensitivity and volume of data?

We’re seeing things like that in many regions of the world today. Privacy, in general, is important, given the fact that so many data breaches and cyber theft are taking place.

If content starts and ends in the same country, and the laws say it has to stay there, we respect those laws and keep the data within the country. The real problem is we don’t have adequate cyber security. If the data is appropriately secured, and the right services are being used, then it becomes less important to keep it in the country. Just legislating that data stay in the country doesn’t really solve the problem. It wouldn’t be good if it got to a point where you start balkanising the internet.

Is a national firewall, like the one in China, the answer to India’s cyber security problems?

I understand the motivation, but I don’t think a giant firewall is helpful.

All the data breaches are at companies that have a firewall, and it’s simply too easy for malware to get across the authentication at the network layer. The firewall will certainly restrict business and legitimate use. I just don’t think it’s a practical solution.

China’s motivation to do that is very different from just keeping the country safe.

Security threats are becoming more sinister and sophisticated. Are companies condemned to always play catch-up?

I think in some areas, the adversarial entities are ahead. That’s in part because the protocols used have bugs — everything is connected and even the slightest vulnerability can be exploited.

You have billions of internet of things (IoT) devices with a lot of processing power for communication stack — while the bandwidth is good, there’s no security. So it’s easy for an adversary to launch all kinds of attacks. The bad guys are wellfunded, they’re smart and highly motivated. So, I think, no enterprise on its own can defend itself successfully — it has to rely on partners.

How do Indian startups make sure their infrastructure is safe and scalable?

Startups should start embracing the cloud and leverage it because that enables you to scale faster. It’s a more economical way to get started.

Embrace companies whose job it is to help provide scale and safety on the internet. If you try to do it yourself, you get distracted from your core business and it will slow you down.

Why should corporates outsource content delivery, rather than keeping it in-house?

It doesn’t make financial sense — they can’t begin to do as good a job.

Back in 2012, major banks were being taken down at will by attacks coming out of the Middle East. And they bought every security device available. It has simply gotten beyond the range of their capabilities or budgets.

How has Akamai India performed?

Overall, the company grew 9% last year. Our fastest-growing region was Asia, and India is a big part of that.

Every function in the company has a team here in India and most of it is in Bengaluru.

We have 1,700 employees in Bengaluru out of a total strength of 7,500. So, it’s close to or is now our largest global office.

You have been associated with the internet from the beginning, both as an academic and as an entrepreneur. What has surprised or shocked you over the years?

I always wondered, being in academics, why it didn’t happen sooner. We were using email, playing electronic games and doing electronic publishing 20 years ahead of the rest of the world. Because, you know, we had the ARPANET at MIT. I didn’t foresee social networking. I didn’t foresee manipulation of elections.

I didn’t foresee data about people. I think a lot of things we don’t know are coming.―Business Telegraph

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