“We want to ensure that our customers and partners are adopting AI responsibly” – Tariq Halawani – Microsoft

CNME Editor Mark Forker secured an exclusive interview with Tariq Halawani, Executive Director of Enterprise Solutions at Microsoft UAE at GISEC 2024, to find out more about the launch of its Security Copilot, the need to use AI responsibly and the biggest threats he sees emerging across the cybersecurity ecosystem.

Tariq Halawani is one of the most respected technology leaders in the Middle East.

He spent time at Trend Micro and Nortel in the early stages of his career, but he made his name at Microsoft when he joined the company in 2009.

In the 15 years that have elapsed since he joined the US tech behemoth, he has served in different roles within Microsoft, such as the Regional Sales Manager for Azure, and the Regional Director – Intelligent Cloud.

He is now the Executive Director of Enterprise Solutions at Microsoft UAE, and CNME managed to secure an exclusive interview with him at GISEC 2024.

At GISEC, Halawani highlighted how Microsoft was demonstrating its Copilot for Security, which he said was designed to empower cybersecurity professionals amidst a backdrop of a constantly evolving threat landscape.

“With AI, and more specifically Generative AI, the threat landscape is changing very quickly. It is quite evident that the volume of threats is now beyond what a team of cybersecurity professionals can handle on their own. We’re bringing AI to the forefront of cyber defence systems, and that’s why we’re creating all these foundational AI models like GPT4 and building specific security trained models that can compliment cybersecurity professionals to be able to deal with the speed and the scale of attacks that they are facing every single day. At GISEC, we’re launching Microsoft Copilot for Security, and what we want is for cybersecurity professionals to view Copilot as a virtual assistant. We process more than 65 trillion threat signals every day throughout the different systems and cloud services that we run globally. However, to make those signals effective and give actionable insights, you need AI power and massive compute power, and that’s what Microsoft’s security Copilot gives users,” said Halawani.

Halawani also outlined how he feels their Microsoft Copilot for Security in many ways is democratising AI technology.

“When you use Copilot for Security you use natural human language to interact with it, and that democratises the technology in many ways. You don’t need to write code to be able to use it. It’s a virtual assistant that is there to help you and will respond to you with details on how threats are evolving and will provide you with information on how you can respond with robust defence strategies. In summary, it is designed for humans, and it is all about natural language, and less about having a skillset with coding for people to be able to protect effectively,” said Halawani.

The shortage of skills in the cybersecurity and IT industry in general has been well documented.

The fact that technology is evolving and developing faster than ever before means that the skills gap is actually widening.

However, as Halawani explained, Microsoft is fully committed in terms of leveraging their technology to help businesses overcome the challenge.

“The skills gap in the cybersecurity domain is not something new, it’s been a huge problem for a long time. However, I do think that over the last five years in collaboration with our global partners and customers we have been trying to address the shortage in terms of skills. I think it’s also important to note that the technology landscape is changing very quickly, which makes it very challenging to skill at that same speed,” said Halawani.

Halawani highlighted that Microsoft had created enablement programs to help their customers and partners be able to capitalise on the capabilities provided by AI.

“With the advent and launch of these new AI services we have built new enablement programs for our customers and partners, and they have been ultimately designed to help cybersecurity professionals better understand how they can leverage AI to tackle the everyday security problems that they face. We are also taking it back into the design of every product we have, we’re looking at ways in which we can make it more intuitive and easy to use, we need to remove the complexity. We want to make it as easy as possible and to give cybersecurity professionals access to actionable insights,” said Halawani.

As a global technology leader, Microsoft has a lot of responsibility when it comes to the technology they deploy.

As the explosion of Generative AI continues to sweep across the region, the topic of Responsible AI has emerged as a key talking point.

Microsoft is a leader when it comes to establishing frameworks and guidelines around Responsible AI, and as Halawani explained is working closely with the UAE government to accelerate adoption.

“We want to ensure that our customers and partners are adopting AI responsibly, and are adhering to safety and compliance measures that are outlined in our frameworks. We are very engaged, and work closely with policymakers and regulators to establish ethical AI frameworks for adoption. One of the examples of this is here in the UAE, where we work closely with the UAE government regulator to ensure that there is guidance for government entities to adopt AI in industries such as healthcare, finance, and the services that they provide for citizens and residents across the UAE. We want to ensure that despite the fact the technology is evolving and maturing all the time, that we do have some guidelines and guardrails around AI – and we are working very closely with the UAE government on this,” said Halawani.

When it comes to Gen AI, and AI in general, many commentators continue to express concerns over data privacy.

However, Halawani reiterated the fact that Microsoft handles its customers data very sensitively.

“We have Open AI models in the UAE, but customer data will always be the customer’s data in our eyes. As a processor of some of these algorithms, we don’t take customers data out of their tenant, and his data will remain within it. We don’t use the data to train our public models, and we don’t use customers data for monetization through advertising. These are core principles at Microsoft and we never compromise on them,” said Halawani.

In terms of some of the key security threats emerging, Halawani concluded a brilliant conversation by pointing to the area of Deep Fakes as being a major issue for many enterprises across the region.

“There has been a huge increase in the sheer volume of identity attacks across the board. However, with cyberhackers now incorporating AI into these attacks, the scale and speed of these attacks are unprecedented in many ways. They have massive compute power that they can now unleash, and identity attacks are now undoubtedly on the rise. In the Middle East region, there has been a huge rise in ransomware attacks. However, deep fakes are becoming a huge, huge challenge in my opinion. We are seeing a lot of content being created and that content generation is leveraging AI and that is causing headaches for a lot of our customers,” concluded Halawani.

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