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AUTOMATING FINANCE SECURITY

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FINANCE

By Faiz Shuja, co-founder at SIRP

The financial (finance) sector today is dominated by all things digital. Consumers and businesses alike can now manage everything from paying bills to applying for loans entirely through online services, eliminating the need for many traditional face-to-face services. Agile young challenger banks built entirely around digital native approaches have emerged to claim large chunks of the market. Established banks meanwhile have been heavily investing in their own capabilities.

Traditionally slower than other industries to adopt new technologies the financial sector, under pressure to stay competitive and relevant is widely embracing the digital switch-over. IDG estimates that this investment will produce worldwide compound annual growth in digital transformation of 20.4 percent between 2017 and 2022. It puts the finance sector above average compared to other industries.

Trading conditions arising from the Covid-19 pandemic are further accelerating the race to go digital. Housebound high street customers are increasingly accessing their accounts online while staff across all operational areas are working remotely.

However, as banks and other financial organisations expand their digital footprints, they also increase their exposure to cyber threats. Investment in digital transformation must therefore be matched by attention to security capabilities.

 

FINANCE

Faiz Shuja

Finance in the firing line

Most cyber-attacks are the work of opportunist criminals on the hunt for a big payday. Given the sector’s close relationship with managing capital in all its forms, it’s scarcely surprising that financial institutions are among the most popular targets for cyber criminals seeking quick profit. Indeed, a recent report from the IMF states that the high volume of sensitive financial information held by banks makes them “one of the most highly targeted economic sectors for data breaches”.

Finance firms face a variety of cyber threats. By far the greatest risk is posed by APTs (advanced persistent threats), often planted by criminal gangs or state-sponsored threat actors. A data breach could mean crucial financial information from millions of customers is stolen, or the withdrawal of large sums of money.

The sector also tempts insiders to misuse their knowledge and access privileges to beat security for personal gain. Unwelcome outcomes include insider trading activity or direct data breaches. The Capital One data breach was a prime example.

Alongside direct network infrastructure attacks, the sector must also contend with threats aimed at customers. Phishing attacks – emails that impersonate the company’s trusted brand – are a common way to trick customers into divulging personal or financial information.

 

Keeping up with digital threats

Financial organisations have always been tempting targets for criminals, from simple smash-and-grab bank robberies to sophisticated fraud schemes. It’s one of the reasons they are one of the world’s most heavily regulated industries. As a result, the finance sector is highly mature in respect of policies and procedures governing data privacy and security.

Cyber crime, however, presents a very different proposition. Threat actors continually adapt their tactics to find new vulnerabilities and penetrate defences. To protect their capital and their customers from these ever-evolving threats, banks and other financial institutions must match their antagonists for agility.

Accordingly, they have invested heavily in threat detection and prevention technology. Measures typically include web and app security to reduce exploitation of online and mobile customer interfaces, EDR (endpoint detection and response) to identify attacks on internal devices, and behavioural analytics to detect unusual user activity that signifies both external intruders and malicious insiders.

 

Accelerating with automation

To truly keep up with aggressive, fast-moving threats such as APT groups, detection and prevention measures are not enough. Banks must also be able to respond to and shut down attacks before they cause significant damage.

Once a threat is detected, it can take around 45-60 minutes before security analysts investigate and respond. Each minute that ticks by increases the chances of the threat actor exfiltrating essential data or causing significant damage to the network.

It’s not just about time either. Security teams are also responsible for managing high volumes of alerts. Research has found that security teams with too many incoming alerts will often either disable certain alert functions to reduce the numbers, or simply ignore some alerts entirely. In both cases the chance of incurring a serious breach goes up.

Keeping up requires financial firms to automate as much of the response process as possible. While there’s no substitute for professional security analysts to scrutinize and resolve advanced threats, today’s automated systems can handle much of the time-consuming investigative workload.

Automation, however, is only effective when current processes and business demands are properly understood. Furthermore, it is impossible to automate everything overnight. Firms must assess their current situation and start with the areas that will benefit most.

The systems that generate the largest threat alert volumes, typically phishing or web-based attack analytics, are a good place to start. Automating these first immediately eases the burden on security resources.

Organisations should also adopt a risk-based approach to automating security management processes. This means ranking potential threats according to their potential to damage the business. Sometimes this is obvious – for example if a receptionist and the CEO are repeatedly on the receiving end of attacks – responding to the latter is a clear priority. However, it is not always so clear cut. Automation tools like Security Orchestration and Response (SOAR) offer a risk-based approach tailored to an organisation’s unique structure and objectives. Having set these thresholds, the organisation can pass alerts from their SIEM (Security Information and Event Management) systems through them to form a dashboard. From the intelligence provided by these dashboards, security teams can quickly identify which threats are the most serious and prioritise steps to mitigate them.

As the financial sector continues to digitise, it will remain a top target for cyber criminals. The evidence is that attacks are increasing in both volume and sophistication. Using automation to increase the speed and efficiency of their response capabilities, provides financial institutions with a fighting chance of keeping one step ahead of adversaries as they continue their digital transformation journeys.

 

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The future of retail trading

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Joe Jowett, CEO of StrikeX

 

The 2020s look set to be the decade of the retail trader. As the pandemic forced large parts of the globe to turn their bedrooms into offices, a new generation of mostly young traders and investors piled onto online trading platforms hoping to combat the doom and gloom of financial insecurity that hung over many at the time. This trend looks likely to outlast the pandemic itself and the considerable power of retail traders, at times making up over 20% of total worldwide trading volume, continues to disrupt the market.

As new trading platforms vie for users in an increasingly competitive environment, 2022 will pose a number of challenges concerning safety and accountability, while a consolidation of crypto and traditional asset trading looks likely. Tools like StrikeX’s own upcoming platform TradeStrike, due to be released later in the year, will ensure that trading and investing can achieve further democratisation and transparency, while enabling wider market access for both new and experienced investors.

 

Generation investor is here to stay

The skyrocketing growth of online trading platforms offering commission-free trading has fundamentally altered the demographics of the stock market. Research shows that the median age of new investors since 2020 is around 35, a significant reduction from pre-pandemic traders, whose median age was 48. Similarly, the average age of Robinhood’s 22 million users is 31, highlighting the fact that most online platforms are predominantly catering to millennials and Gen Z traders.

Joe Jowett

This dramatic shift in demographic, fuelled by easy access to online platforms with mobile apps and extensive social media networks on Twitter and Reddit, means that this new generation of traders and investors has a substantial influence on the market. This was seen at its most extreme in early 2021, when the subreddit WallStreetBets conspired to “short-squeeze” institutional investors who had bet against the ailing GameStop stock, causing headlines around the world.

While making money remains a priority for young traders, the sentiment behind the GameStop saga was one driven by a boisterous confidence that the traditional gatekeepers of the stock market could be swept aside, and a world previously shrouded in secrecy could be democratised and made accessible to the amateur investor. This same sentiment is shared by large swathes of crypto traders and investors, who believe in the transformative potential of decentralisation inherent in blockchain technology.

 

Lessons learned?

While online trading platforms like Robinhood enabled the GameStop rally, the decision to momentarily suspend trading of a number of so-called “meme stocks” caused millions of traders to lose their money and cast aspersions on the platform’s credentials of democratising the trading world. Hundreds of lawsuits concerning the episode are still pending and many users took to crypto and NFTs instead, where the blockchain-enabled peer-to-peer trading mechanics eliminate the need for intermediaries.

The GameStop saga has highlighted that trading platforms must prioritise accountability and transparency as part of their mission to benefit the retail investor. A trading platform with the unilateral right to restrict the trading of its users without prior warning will find it hard to win over a generation of investors and traders which values transparency and access above all else.

Further factors can play a part in providing broader access to new investors, including a clear breakdown of costs, such as withdrawal and order fees. As many online platforms have cluttered and complex user interfaces, these aspects are easily missed by beginners and can inhibit the accessibility to new users more generally.

 

Tokenisation is the future

One way to significantly democratise retail trading is the tokenisation of assets. Blockchain technology is seeing a wave of adoption across multiple sectors, from digital art and the metaverse to asset finance and real estate. As is demonstrated by the world of NFTs, any asset can be tokenised to establish an immutable and transparent record of ownership on a blockchain. Tokenising shares in stocks, bonds or commodities can completely transform the way we trade and offers the transparency and security lacking in many existing platforms.

One of the benefits of tokenisation is the possibility to trade 24/7, regardless of stock exchange cycles. As transactions can be recorded on the blockchain even when markets are closed, users can trade irrespective of their time zone, opening the market up to a wider base of traders and investors across borders. Further, blockchain automation allows for maximised transaction speeds with minimal transaction fees, while any information stored on the blockchain is accessible and verifiable by all, taking data ownership out of centralised control.

One of the most transformative benefits of tokenisation is the possibility to trade all assets, from stocks and commodities to crypto and NFTs, on one single platform. Juggling multiple portfolios on various exchanges is a significant entry barrier, as traders can lose sight of their investments. Tokenisation removes this barrier and opens the market to new users wishing to invest in both crypto and traditional shares. Finally, tokenisation allows for fractionalised shares, making diversification possible at lower costs.

 

A future-proof platform

At StrikeX, we are developing a solution which delivers on the benefits of tokenisation, while offering a transparent and user-friendly product to its users. Our flagship platform TradeStrike, due to launch later in 2022, is developed by retail investors for retail investors and offers tokenised assets, including stocks, NFTs and real estate, as well as cryptocurrencies, all in one unified interface.

TradeStrike will enable users to access the widest possible range of assets and 24/7 trading across borders will open up the market to a whole range of new traders who had previously been restricted from investing. Complete with a clean and intuitive interface and a range of educational tools, TradeStrike is designed to empower retail traders to make the best decisions based on clear and transparent information.

Online trading platforms have seen a monumental growth in recent years and have enabled a new wave of investors to access a previously safeguarded market. The year ahead will show whether these platforms are equipped to deal with challenges such as transparency and accessibility. One thing is clear: Generation Investor has changed trading for years to come.

 

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Five predictions set impact the finance teams in 2022

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By Rob Israch, GM Europe at Tipalti

 

The CFO now has a very different set of responsibilities in comparison to a few years ago; 2021 saw sustainability move up the C-suite agenda, Brexit was officially pushed through meaning new rules and regulations for industries, and pandemic uncertainty caused further disruption for businesses. Understandably then, 97% of UK CFOs believe their role has become more complex over the last two years, according to latest research by Tipalti. Finance leaders, who were already rushed off their feet, are now having to wear even more hats.

Operating in a new climate, with new challenges and circumstances, finance teams must be ready to innovate to find new solutions to changing business needs. From becoming more attuned to ESG ratings to fighting against the burden of manual processes and tasks, below we explore what finance teams can expect to experience in 2022.

 

  1. A tightening of CEO-CFO relationship

As opposed to solely managing financial operations and ensuring compliance, the CFOs relationship with the CEO will intensify in 2022. This shift will see the CFO become increasingly involved in looking at the strategic ways the business can grow and diversify.

Nearly two-fifths (39%) of CFOs have noted a larger demand to collaborate with the c-suite now than two years ago. However, organisations are still slowed down by old ways of working, as nearly a third (29%) of CFOs state they are having to deal with more manual finance operations. As a result, CFOs aren’t afforded time to support the business leader in the way that their job requires.

Rob Israch

By innovating financial processes through automation, finance teams can free up time for the strategic tasks that matter most to the business. In fact, UK CEOs believe that the ability to prioritise innovation (25%) and the ability to improve financial and business reporting accuracy and timeliness are the most important qualities for a successful CFO today.

 

  1. Invoice payments fraud will be harder to fight

Every year, defending against fraud gets increasingly challenging. As accounts payable complexities rise, finance teams will experience payments fraud at an alarming rate.

Finance teams today are tasked with managing more diverse payment methods, increasing cross-border transactions and dynamic tax compliance and financial reporting. Yet, teams struggle to cope when operations are processed manually. The most common perpetrator of payment fraud is manual processes. They are neither efficient nor airtight enough to ensure optimum financial control. Busy finance teams, escalating complexities in AP and error prone manual processing sets the perfect scene for fraudsters to take advantage.

To mitigate such risk, companies need to leverage people, processes and technology. This means investing in robust technologies such as automation to standardise procedures. Data entry will be minimised, end-to-end payments processing visibility will be optimised and policy compliance becomes automated. Not only does AP automation relieve workflows by minimising manual intervention, but the technology acts as a hub for enforcing strong financial controls as the number of people and systems involved in payment processing is reduced substantially.

In addition, 2022 will see more multi-entity businesses emerge as organisations recognise the value of the ‘work from anywhere’ model. It can be challenging to manage finance functions across these multiple entities, and that is often why different business units in geographical locations run their finances in isolation, with varying processes and approvals being managed in different ways. However, with no central control or oversight, you run the risk of internal fraud.

 

  1. Finance leaders will need to focus on ESG initiatives

Following COP26, business leaders are under pressure to set and meet green targets, and many are turning to their CFOs for solutions. In fact, CFOs ranked incorporating environmental, social and governance (ESG) and sustainability into the business and its operations as the greatest driver of complexity in their role (27%), above even the global pandemic (22%).

A key reason for this is that ESG ratings have become an important tool for asset managers and investors to evaluate and compare future investment prospects. Currently more than a quarter (28%) of UK business leaders rank international growth as a top priority for the year ahead, so a less than favourable ESG rating is not an option. So far, the challenge for CFOs has been finding the time to work on sustainable initiatives.

 

  1. Uncertainty will continue to loom over the UK post-Brexit

It has been over five years since the UK voted for Brexit – but it will most certainly be on the agenda in 2022 as new regulations emerge. There are a number of challenges that Brexit brings, and much uncertainty still remains in place.

In navigating the uncharted waters of Brexit, businesses will encounter new hurdles when looking to fill roles, as the Global Talent Visa makes competition for skilled employees more formidable than ever before. With the visa application deadline passed, some employees may have chosen to move back home contributing to headcount issues for finance teams.

Moreover, the UK is still yet to agree many key trade agreements. Businesses will need to stay vigilant – watching out for any changes at relatively short notice and be ready to adapt.

 

  1. Employee wellbeing will need to be prioritised

Along with many other departments, the Great Resignation period has meant finance is experiencing Churn. Whilst the wellbeing of all employees will be a key focus for the c-suite this year, CFOs will need to ensure the work of the finance team is engaging and talent is not wasted on tedious and time-consuming operations. Introducing automation to take care of those manual tasks will free up time to upskill employees, while making them feel valued in their role.

 

The future office of finance

2022 will see finance teams adapting the way they operate to combat new challenges. With agreements signed following COP26, implementing sustainable initiatives is no longer a choice, and in the wake of Brexit uncertainty, businesses will have to face new rules and regulations head on. On top of this, the CFO will need to pivot away from solely financial operations in order to drive strategy, fight against fraud threats while prioritising the wellbeing of their team.

It’s a complex set of responsibilities and will only be achieved if finance teams are able to move away from manual administrative work and towards new technologies and automation capability. A CFOs time is precious and needs to be reserved for the tasks that matter.

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