Resilience put to the test in the war against cybercrime

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Monday Interview

Speaking to Jude McCorry as she approaches her first anniversary heading up the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that fate does indeed have a sense of irony.

Coming from her previous role as head of business development at The Data Lab, Ms McCorry officially joined the SBRC as lockdown measures were coming into effect in March of last year. Heading up a 15-strong team tasked with creating an environment where companies can trade securely, she was in charge of the sudden shift to remote working at a time when clients were most in need of the SBRC’s services.

“Some of them I only know from the neck up, from Zoom and Teams meetings,” she says of the SBRC staff, whom she praises for their “excellent” response to the unfolding crisis.

Founded in 1996, when it was then known as the Scottish Business Crime Centre, the SBRC brings together the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service and the business community to make the country a safer place to live and work, both on and offline. It’s been a tall order since the outbreak of Covid, with companies battling to survive the economic fallout of lockdown restrictions while also coming under increasing cyberattack from criminals taking advantage of the situation.

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“During the first two or three weeks of lockdown, cyber issues weren’t really part of the discussion, but then all of the scams started coming out,” Ms McCorry says. “These criminal gangs were moving with the Covid story.”

The initial response was to pull all hands on deck as enquiries flooded in from firms looking to make sense of the raft of support measures being rolled out by the Government to support the economy through the first wave of closing down nearly all business activity to combat the spread of the virus.

The SBRC hosted its first webinar in March, just days after lockdown went into effect. About 650 people signed up, but because of Zoom licensing restrictions, the team could only accept 500 participants. They wound up holding such events every two or three days in those first weeks.

Originally from Ireland, Ms McCorry landed her first job with Dell Computers after studying marketing and languages at university. After five years at Dell, she joined Wicklow-based data storage start-up Xnet as its manager for Northern Ireland, where it was setting up a centre in Belfast as part of its ambition to break into the UK market.

“Coming from a large corporation like Dell, with all the resources it has, and then moving into a small company gives you a really rounded experience where you have to do a bit of everything,” she said.

“You know, the teas and coffees have to be made, you don’t just show up in a meeting room and they are all there. And everyone has to answer the phone.”

It was while visiting a colleague and friend from Xnet in Edinburgh that she met her future husband, Robert, who would eventually be the catalyst for her move to Scotland 18 years ago.

“I love the collaborative spirit in Scotland, that you can phone anybody for mentoring or help, and they will give it to you, and there is nothing in it for them,” she said.

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That “collaborative spirit” kicked into high gear in the spring of last year, when a variety of Scottish business leaders stepped up to lend a hand as the SBRC was providing guidance on what were then brand-new programmes like furlough and CBILS to assist companies through lockdown.

“I can’t thank people enough for doing this,” Ms McCorry said. “By helping me, they were also helping thousands of businesses.”

By her estimation, Ms McCorry reckons the SBRC engaged with about 5,500 new businesses during the first six weeks after lockdown. Prior to the pandemic, that number would have been more in the region of 100 per month.

As the crisis continued to unfold, the online scams and criminal activity gathered pace. Ms McCorry is particularly concerned about the rise of ransomware attacks such as the Christmas Eve assault on SEPA. Experts have said it could take the environmental agency up to six months to recover from the siege, which was launched by international cyber criminals who have demanded money in exchange for relinquishing their stranglehold.

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Fraud is another major worry, as was the case with one Scottish business owner who lost all his money in a carefully-timed scam during the run-up to Christmas. He is one of hundreds who have been in touch with the Incident Response Unit set up last year to provide advice to firms that have fallen victim to cybercrime.

With an annual budget of £1 million generated through a mix of government contracts and commercial activity, Ms McCorry would like to see the SBRC further beefed up through even greater collaboration – “let’s put it on steroids” – to create a robust central national defence against cybercrime.

“One of the things I would want to happen is for criminals to be sitting around in a room somewhere – and that is what they are, criminals, not hackers – and for them to say ‘Oh, you know what? That company is based in Scotland, let’s not bother with that’.”

Q&A

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

That seems like an alien question at the moment! For business, I love New York for the sightseeing, roof top bars, shopping, buzz and also the openness and can-do attitude of the New Yorkers; they don’t see any barriers but see the benefits in the skills, innovation and the friendliness of the Scottish people. For leisure, I just want to go “home” to Ireland and hug my dad and just sit next to him, which I haven’t been able to do for a year now.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I wanted to be like Cybil Shepherd in Moonlighting – the glamorous suits and the shoulder pads appealed big time.

What was your biggest break in business?

My biggest break was working in Dell at the start of the dot.com era in Ireland. It was my first job and no one held age or lack of experience against you. I learned so much, had many opportunities to progress, and made some lifelong friends.

What was your worst moment in business?

Working for a tech start-up that went under. It was a huge kick in the stomach, after all the work we had put in and the amazing team we had built up, but it ended up being my biggest learning experience.

Who do you most admire and why?

Over the last few months in Scotland this has changed for me, there have been so many great business people who have stepped up to the mark to help people survive the pandemic business-wise, including my team at SBRC, Alistair and Peter at The Scottish Tech Army, Lynn Calder at AAB, Iain Mitchelmore at British Business Bank, Paul Atkinson at Par Equity. I don’t go for famous people as they usually end up disappointing you!

Personally it’s my dad, who has battled with Parkinson’s disease for 16 years now and takes every day as it comes and makes the most of it, albeit a bit slower these days.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I have just finished Shuggie Bain which I loved and I hope Douglas Stewart writes a follow-up.

With music, I love anything with a beat that I can run to, with some Irish music thrown in to help with the homesickness – like Kodaline, Two door Cinema Club, Cranberries, U2, and Coronas.

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