Palo Alto Networks acquires stealthy start-up with NSA roots

Morta Security’s technology said to be developed by executives and engineers formerly with National Security Agency

Next-generation firewall maker Palo Alto Networks today announced its first acquisition, an intriguing buyout of a stealthy Mountain View start-up called Morta Security whose founders hail from the NSA. The price of the purchase was not disclosed.

Morta that has been in stealth mode since 2012  and describes its founders as “executives and engineers from the National Security Agency.” CEO Raj Shahsays he worked in the Air Force Reserve supporting the NSA.  “We have deep experience in protecting our national infrastructure,” he says.

Rene Bonvanie, chief marketing officer at Palo Alto Networks, says Morta has developed techniques for detecting and remediating malware, and Palo Alto intends to integrate the technology into its next-generation firewall platform either as a cloud service or directly on the Palo Alto firewall platform. Palo Alto’s firewalls support sandboxing technologies to detect zero-day malware.

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Palo Alto declined to say much more about Morta, which hasn’t yet introduced products publicly. Morta technologies “will show up in our product soon,” according to Bonvanie.

According to its website, Morta has been funded by venture capital firms that include A16z seed, Greylock Partners and Norwest Ventures.

The Palo Alto-Morta deal represents the second high-profile security acquisition in recent weeks, following the purchase of Mandiant by FireEye, a Palo Alto Networks competitor. That deal was valued at around $1 billion.

The acquisitions come as the number of cyberattacks are on the rise and hackers' methods become more sophisticated, they said. "The days are gone of the bad guy simply going after the data center," said Nir Zuk, CTO and founder at Palo Alto Networks. Now, more attacks on data centers are being directed through an end user's machine, sometimes through less secure mobile devices, Zuk said. That makes data centers more susceptible to invaders.

Retail giant Target, as well as Internet companies such as Snapchat and Twitter, have been victims of data breaches in recent months, giving rise to heightened concerns over cyberattacks. Other victims have included major media companies including The New York Times and The Washington Post, sometimes perpetrated by nation-state attackers.

As these attacks increase, IT security companies are looking to expand their tool sets and enhance their offerings to clients, including through acquisitions.

(IDG News Service contributed to this report) Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail: emessmer@nww.com

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