The Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library in Rome, Italy (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Vatican Apostolic Library, which holds one of the world’s oldest and most significant collections of historical documents, has hired a British cybersecurity firm to protect its digitized collection from hacker attacks. The library says that it has been subject to an average of 100 cyber-threats every month since it started its digitization project in 2012.

Founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V, the Vatican library maintains 80,000 invaluable items, including drawings and writings from Michelangelo and Galileo, and the oldest remaining copy of the Bible. Other items include an illustrated fragment of Virgil’s Aeneid that dates back 1,600 years, Sandro Botticelli’s 1450 illustration of the Divine Comedy, and ancient manuscripts of the Inca people, among others archival treasures.

“We cannot ignore that our digital infrastructure is of interest to hackers,” said Manlio Miceli, Chief Information Officer at the Vatican Library, in an interview with the Observer. “A successful attack could see the collection stolen, manipulated or deleted altogether.”

“The Abyss of Hell,” colored drawing on parchment by Sandro Botticelli (1480s) (via Wikimedia Commons)

To protect its database from an increasing number of cyberattacks, the library hired Darktrace, a cybersecurity company founded in 2013 by mathematicians from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The company claims to have developed a self-learning Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform modeled on the human immune system.

“Powered by AI, the technology works by forming an evolving understanding of the ‘normal’ activity within the Vatican Library’s digital systems, and detects significant changes that may indicate that a cyber-threat is emerging,” Darktrace said in a statement.

So far, the Vatican library has digitized about 25% of its collection, the equivalent of 41 million pages, according to Miceli.

“We have to protect our online collection so that readers can trust the records are accurate, unaltered history,” the Vatican official said. “While physical damage is often clear and immediate, an attack of this kind wouldn’t have the same physical visibility, and so has the potential to cause enduring and potentially irreparable harm, not only to the archive but to the world’s historical memory.”

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...