Here's how banks can walk the line between innovation and security

If financial institutions want to capitalise on new opportunities, they first need solid digital infrastructure

A cyber attack on China's ICBC last November highlighted the need for banks to protect their assets when adopting new technologies. Reuters
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Last November, the world’s largest bank – China’s ICBC – was hit by a cyberattack that disrupted one of its financial services divisions and led to wider-reaching problems. The breach caused institutions around the world to realise that as they continue to innovate and integrate new digital technologies in their systems, they need to protect their sensitive networks.

Secure banking and financial operations are a must as we navigate the rising risk of fraud and cyber-crime. Companies and people placing their trust in banks also need to trust that while the sector continues to adopt new technologies, it can also handle today’s challenges and unknown future risks.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’s Financial Services in 2025 report, the top two challenges for the industry over the next five years will be digital transformation and the effect of new technologies. With developments such as AI and the cloud taking the world by storm, as well as future generations – so-called digital natives – expect banks to provide modern services. It is thus imperative that the financial sector continues to invest in innovation.

The question is how can financial institutions walk the line between keeping their data and assets safe while engaging with new technologies?

No matter how fancy a building looks, it requires a solid foundation. The same principle applies to technology. To capitalise on opportunities in data analytics, the Internet of Things and AI, banks must first ensure they have a reliable, secure digital infrastructure.

Take for example, a major stock exchange that needs to upgrade its network. The entity is keen to adopt new technology, but its existing traditional network lacks the bandwidth to keep up with operations and doesn’t meet modern security standards.

By investing in a ‘fabric-based network’ – one that helps multiple, discrete and secure virtual networks to run seamlessly – the stock exchange can automate most management tasks, fortify itself against rogue activity and support more sophisticated applications. This is because fabric technology can integrate thousands of connected devices and diverse elements while keeping network traffic separate, which makes it easier for administrators to manage the network while reducing the potential impact of a breach.

Evolving technologies need to be approached with change-management skills, accountability and specific targets, but this also needs a deeper understanding of technologies in question

Just like any other strategy put in place by banks, evolving technologies need to be approached with change-management skills, accountability and specific targets. But this also needs a deeper understanding of the technologies in question.

Let’s look at AI. A short while ago, banks were experimenting with using AI and large sets of customer data to improve the banking experience by personalising offerings, not fully realising that the “emotional” element of money and money-related decisions makes using predictive analytics more complex than in retail or logistics.

Yet, AI can and should be used by banks in other ways such as to detect fraud. If used appropriately, AI could add between $200 billion and $340 billion in value to the sector, according to a 2023 report by McKinsey & Co.

As technologies change rapidly, innovative banks and other financial institutions will need guidance and awareness as they move forward. By implementing an easy-to-control network infrastructure, organisations can adopt technologies such AI while keeping mission-critical data and applications segmented from other parts of the network. This would enable them to test and roll out new changes without affecting daily operations.

Once financial institutions have the correct infrastructure strategy in place for their technology roadmap, execution will require the right talent and capabilities. The workforce of the future is clearly changing, which means the sector needs to decide on either upskilling existing professionals or investing in new capabilities, internally and externally.

The rise of generative AI and a growing number of customers and innovators who are dependent on digital technologies means that the traditional financial services era as we know it will change. Yet, given that the very nature of finance and banking is rooted in a risk-conscious culture and the need for stability, the sector will have to navigate those changes in a very different manner than other industries. It cannot and should not rush to adopt new technologies and trends merely because they work for other sectors.

By understanding technologies, however, and building up capabilities and infrastructure, as well as working with the right partners, banks can reap benefits while also preparing for the future. There are vast opportunities on the horizon and this decade will be challenging, but ultimately worth it. I, for one, am excited by what the future holds for this age-old sector.

Published: February 28, 2024, 2:00 PM