From planes to AI, Allan Thomson has been playing wargames for decades

Emma McGowan 8 Oct 2020

Introducing Avast's Chief Architect of Threat Defense Technology

In a video call with Allan Thomson, the first things you’ll notice are the plaques lining the wall behind him. They’re the 52 U.S. patents he’s filed in the more than 30 years that he’s worked in technology. From his early career, developing software for radar research trials to defining the architecture for next-generation cyber defense systems to the role of Chief Architect Threat Defense Technology at Avast, Allan has pretty much done it all.

But while he’s the kind of guy who has a veritable catalogue of U.S. patents, Allan’s path almost went in a very different direction. As a teenager growing up in Scotland, Allan found school difficult and didn’t appreciate the benefits that a formal education would provide, so when he left high school he looked towards any opportunities that were more practically minded. Knowing he wasn’t interested in heading right to university, his father connected him with an electronics apprenticeship with a high profile defense contractor in the UK.

To Allan’s surprise, he loved it. 

“And so I went from hating school and never wanting to see another school book in my entire life, to realizing that what I loved was learning and creating things,” Allan says. “I like to create and build capabilities that help solve a real problem. I’m not a fan of just talking about what should be done. It matters that we turn ideas into something of value. In my current role, that means creating tangible improvements to protect people from cyberthreats.”

One of Allan’s first jobs was writing low-level high performance software for radar trials of military aircraft in the UK. It was his first foray into “security,” albeit physical security  rather than online security.

“It was very high stress because we were performing the radar trials in the plane while in the air,” Allan says. "It wasn’t just software in the lab — we took our software and the new radar elements and performed aerial trials in a variety of planned environments. Consequently, I learned a lot about real-world deployments of software.”

After a while, Allan realized that he was hitting a ceiling that he couldn’t break without a formal graduate degree. In order to fulfill his potential and explore more challenging opportunities, he would need a computer science degree. So the boy who hated school finally went to university, got a computer science degree, and launched into working on networking and distributed systems.

Allan spent the next two decades working at smaller software architecture and development companies as well as large corporations, including Cisco Systems. Allan started out in network management and then moved into security, continuing to protect businesses of all sizes. Some of the technologies he developed help companies track physical and human assets — like computers and phones and traders on the floor of the New York stock exchange — as well as keep intruders out.

Allan’s next move was into threat intelligence, where he developed software systems that use data to help identify and mitigate risks in real-time. That role, in combination with his three decades of industry experience, perfectly positioned him for his current role of Fellow, Chief Architect Threat Defense Technology at Avast. 

His plan for this cybersecurity company? 

Put simply, it’s to manifest Avast’s leadership in cybersecurity. 

“Avast is a leader in antivirus solutions, supporting over 400 milion end users ,” Allan says. “However, cybersecurity is much more than antivirus protection. We will focus on the security of end users entire online presence, including privacy, identity and data.” 

With that holistic approach to online security and privacy in mind, Allan’s particular interest right now lies in adversarial artificial intelligence (AI). Rather than reacting to online attacks after they occur, Allan plans to enable Avast to  predict attacks before they happen. In order to do that, he’s working on creating a machine learning approach that is able to learn and adapt based on the gamification of the activities of malicious actors in order to figure out their next move. 

This type of gamification in a lab environment is similar to the way machines were programmed to learn how to win at chess. The big difference is that, in cyber crime, the number of variables that need to be considered is significantly larger than in a chess game, making it much more complex to develop approaches that beat criminals in their game. 

“Our objective is to be 10 steps ahead of the bad guys by developing systems and capabilities that can predict and learn from cyber attacks in real-time,” says Allan. 

To win the cyber wars, it’s paramount to understand the adversaries strategies, motives, objectives and execution. And that, Allan says, requires a fundamental shift in the approach to cyber defense.

“I believe that the way most people in the security industry look at solving cybersecurity problems is too focused on defense and not enough on intimately knowing the attacker’s approaches,” he says. “Bad actors don’t follow rules and are extremely creative in developing new approaches to reach their goals.”

When asked if getting into the minds of cybercriminals has ever tempted him to go over to the dark side himself, Allan answers with a resounding “no."

“On a personal note, my father was a police officer, and I am following in his footsteps by focusing my career on protecting businesses and people,” Allan says. “I love solving hard problems and the opportunity to make meaningful advances in cybersecurity for the benefit of the world motivates me everyday.”

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