NordVPN logo on tech concept

We chat with CTO at NordVPNMarijus Briedisabout the VPN service’s latest Threat Protection feature, the unfortunate success of AI-driven phishing attacks, and taking care of 300,000 malware infections per month.

One of the safest tools you can use online is a VPN, and NordVPN is here to provide. While the best VPN services can help unlock geo-restricted content so you can access streaming services worldwide, more importantly, it will keep your online traffic encrypted.

NordVPN takes cybersecurity a step further, from its private DNS that keeps third-party spies at bay to its Dark Web Monitor feature that keeps you “in the know” if your online accounts are compromised. Its Threat Protection tool, however, deals with the biggest cyber threats of all: malware and trackers.

In 2023, almost 300 million user accounts were breached globally. Sure, that’s an 18% decrease compared to 2022, but it shows that malicious websites, phishing attacks, and malware still prevail. NordVPN aims to counter these threats, and with its new vulnerability detection feature, its Threat Protection solution now has even more tools to keep users safe.

Just how many attacks does NordVPN have to defend against, you ask? “On average, NordVPN’s Threat Protection feature blocks around 300,000 malware infections per month,” says Marijus Briedis, CTO at NordVPN. That’s a staggering amount, and it doesn’t help that AI has become a major player in employing cyberattacks.

As its Threat Protection feature continues to evolve, Briedis talks to us about the perks of using the right VPN and the growing dangers of threat actors using AI-driven tools.

CTO at NordVPN Marijus Briedis
CTO at NordVPN Marijus Briedis

Beyond VPNs

There’s no doubt that VPNs have become an essential tool for online privacy. But Briedis realises that a VPN service can do much more than hide your IP address so you can watch US Netflix in New Zealand.

“We are committed to our consumers’ privacy and online security not only by developing regular updates but also by introducing new features,” says Briedis. “We focus on core technologies that would expand the use of VPN technology and change the entire market.”

He continues: “One example could be our Threat Protection security solution, designed to defend users from everyday online cyber threats like malware and trackers. Threat Protection secures users by scanning files as they’re downloading, identifying threats, and blocking them before they harm devices. This feature is rare in most of the VPN apps.”

It certainly is, especially among the sea of free VPNs roaming around. NordVPN doesn’t stop there, though, as it continues to develop new ways to protect its users from sneaky malware slipping through the cracks.

“Recently, we added a new feature to the Threat Protection cybersecurity solution to protect users from cyber threats raised by vulnerable software. The vulnerability detection feature checks Windows computers for vulnerable applications and notifies users about their known security flaws so preventive measures can be taken.”

NordVPN Threat Protection Vulnerability Detection

With AI being a hot topic, NordVPN has joined the bandwagon by employing its own form of artificial intelligence for security: “We aim to explore emerging technologies like AI to create new tools and services. The first experimental project, called Sonar, is already available for registered users. Sonar is based on the large language model technology used by ChatGPT, and it warns users on how likely the email they received is a phishing scam.”

It’s clear Briedis talks about NordVPN as more than just a VPN service, and it’s a direction many other services should follow.

AI can lie, too

According to a report from NordVPN, research shows that adult content sites (21%), as well as cloud storage providers (14%) and entertainment sites (11%), contain the most significant amount of malware. Among the most common types of malware are viruses, spyware, worms, trojans, adware, scareware, ransomware, and fileless malware.

With the 300,000 malware infections NordVPN fends off, surely the service sees all manner of cyber threats. With this in mind, I asked Briedis what the most common cyber attacks that threaten people’s safety, even when connected to a VPN. As it turns out, it’s phishing attacks, and AI is bolstering it.

“More than 90% of all cyberattacks begin with phishing and cybercriminals are keen users of AI-driven tools to make phishing attacks more effective,” Briedis states.

“As a matter of fact, creating personalised and convincing phishing attacks is the most common way cybercriminals use AI. Since AI can analyse vast amounts of publicly available data and better understand the target’s behaviour and preferences, AI-generated personalised phishing emails can be highly effective at deceiving individuals.”

This isn’t the first we’ve heard of the dangers of AI. In our interview with Norton Senior Systems Engineer Dean Williams, he talks about how large-scale AI tools have the ability to create a very convincing, very accurate message with context very quickly. Because they can distribute the data and create it very quickly, they can also distribute it at scale quickly.

AI Malware concept image

Briedis explains more about how AI is being implemented: “Public information is not the only thing that popular AI tools have at their disposal. As AI systems become more prevalent, there is an increased risk of mishandling or misusing sensitive data.

“For example, if an employee of a certain company uses an AI tool to write a report from confidential information, the same data later could be used to create so-called spear phishing attacks that are highly tailored to individual targets, increasing the likelihood of success. Once you get a phishing email with information that is supposed to be confidential, there is a big chance that you will fall into the trap.”

Spear phishing is one of the most common types of phishing attacks, along with vishing, smishing, and email phishing. There’s no sign of these slowing down thanks to AI – especially with the estimated 3.4 billion emails being sent daily.

“Hence, with the changing landscape of cybersecurity and the rising use of AI, we should better educate citizens to make our businesses and societies more resilient.”

Tricks of the trade

With over seven years under his belt at Nord Security, Briedis has plenty of expert advice to give when protecting your data and device from the wealth of cyberattacks. The good news is these precautionary measures are simple enough for anyone to carry out.

“Firstly, use antivirus or other cybersecurity software, like Threat Protection,” Briedis explains. “If you need to download something, you should use a security software to scan that download for malware before opening it. Antivirus software also allows you to scan your entire computer for malware. In addition, download software only from reputable websites or app stores.”

We second this point, as the best antivirus software can identify and protect you from all types of nasty malware trying to infiltrate your devices.

“Secondly, be careful about opening email attachments or images. Users should be wary if a random person sends you a suspicious email containing attachments or images. Sometimes, those emails might just be spam, but other times, those emails might secretly contain harmful malware.”

Over the past year, we’ve seen dangerous malware hiding in Microsoft OneNote email attachments and Disney+ email scams tricking users into sending attackers their banking info. If there’s an unfamiliar email you’re unsure about, delete it.

“Thirdly, always install updates. Many types of malware will rely on vulnerabilities in the operating system to find their way into your device. Developers continuously fix the software’s soft spots to provide users with a more resilient version through system updates. Make sure to download and install updates as soon as they get released because they contain critical security fixes.”

So, what’s next for NordVPN’s plans for cybersecurity? Briedis notes, “While it’s too early to talk about new NordVPN features, our users can definitely expect new features and products to improve their privacy and cybersecurity.”

For more on all things cybersecurity, check out our exclusive interview with 1Password CPO Steve Won.