DC Startup Casts an AI Net to Stop Phishing and Malware
When the price went way up on a key service a small Washington, D.C., firm was using to protect its customers’ internet connectivity, the company balked.
After not finding a suitable alternative, the company decided to build its own. The result was a whole new business, called DNSFilter, which is casting a wide net around the market to combat phishing and malware.
Its innovation: It ditched the crowdsourcing model that has served for more than a decade as the bedrock for identifying whether websites are valid or corrupt. It opted, instead, for GPU-powered AI to make web surfing safer by identifying threats and objectionable content much faster than traditional offerings.
“We figured that if we built a whole new DNS from the ground up, built on artificial intelligence and machine learning, we could find threats faster and more effectively,” said Rustin Banks, chief revenue officer and one of four principals at DNSFilter.
Spinning Up Phishing Protection
DNS, or domain name system, is the naming system for computers, phones and services that connect to the internet. DNSFilter’s aim is to protect these assets from malicious websites and attacks.
The company’s algorithm takes seconds to compare websites to a machine learning model generated from 30,000 known phishing sites. To date, its AI prevents over 90 percent of new requests to visit potentially corrupt sites.
It’s this speed that largely separates DNSFilter from the rest of the industry, Banks said. It gets results in near real time, while competitors typically take around 24 hours.
The company’s algorithm has been built and trained in the cloud using NVIDIA P4 GPU clusters.
“NVIDIA GPUs allow us to rapidly train AI, while being able to use cutting-edge frameworks. It’s not a job I would want to do without them,” said Adam Spotton, chief data scientist at DNSFilter.
Inferencing occurs at 48 locations worldwide, hosted by 10 vendors who’ve passed DNSFilter’s rigorous security standards.
Banks said the company’s rivals primarily use a company in the Philippines that has a team of 150 people classifying sites all day. But for DNSFilter, the more corrupt sites it identifies, the faster and more accurate its algorithm becomes. (Disclosure: NVIDIA is one of the company’s biggest customers.)
Moreover, DNSFilter’s solution works at the network level so there’s no plug-in necessary and the solution works with any email client, protecting organizations regardless of where employees are or what device they’re using.
“If the CFO uses his Yahoo mail on his mobile device, it doesn’t matter,” said Banks. “It’s built right into the fabric of the internet request.”
Upping the Ante
Banks estimates that DNS filtering represents a billion-dollar market, and he’s confident that the $10 billion firewall market is in play for DNSFilter.
Already, the startup is fielding more than a billion DNS requests a day. Banks foresees that number rising to 10 billion by the end of 2020. He also expects accuracy will come to exceed 99 percent as the dataset of corrupt sites grows.
The company isn’t stopping there. More services are planned, including a log -analysis product currently in beta. It scans logos on sites linked from phishing emails and compares them against a database of approved sites to determine whether the logo is real. It then blocks phishing sites in real time.
Eventually, Banks said, the company intends to evolve from its current machine learning feedback loop to a neural network with sufficient cognition to identify things that its algorithms can’t find.
This, he said, would be like having an extra pair of eyes inside an organization’s security team, constantly monitoring suspicious web surfing wherever employees may be working.
“This is taking phishing protection to a new level,” said Banks. “It’s like network-level protection that comes with you wherever you go.”
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