Pioneering cyber-security centre to transform crime prevention podcast

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  • Ultra powerful processors to enable safer internet surfing
  • Innovative CCTV analysis to cut crime on public transport
  • Cutting-edge research to combat computer viruses

These are some of the research projects that will be the focus of a major UK cyber-security centre launched today.

The new £25 million Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT), based at Queen's University Belfast, is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Technology Strategy Board, Queen’s University Belfast and a range of partner organisations.

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Dr Godfrey Gaston [GG]

It has been said that in the 19th century it was important for the UK to secure the seas. In the 20th century it was important for the UK to secure the airwaves and I think as we move into the 21st century it’s vital that the UK secures cyber space and I think the whole area of cyber security is a particularly big challenge not only for the UK, but also internationally as well.


Dr Godfrey Gaston is the director of the Centre for Secure Information Technologies, CSIT. Safer internet surfing, combating computer viruses and cutting crime on public transport, these are just some of the areas being looked into at CSIT which is based at Queen’s University Belfast. Dr Gaston explains more about the work of the centre.


Broadly speaking it’s in two very high level areas. One is in information security and one is in the people or physical security. So information security would be things like privacy of data records and networks and making sure that you are safe on line and that all information is secure and also making sure that children are safe on line. Those sorts of aspects would broadly relate into information security. On the people and physical security side of things, this is typically looking at CCTV, looking at protection of national infrastructure and making sure that people and property are safe.

But what we’re seeing more and more is that the two of these are actually combining and converging so if you look at future CCTV, cameras will all be connected by the internet. So in reality lots of cameras connected by the internet is not a lot different from lots of computers connected by the internet, so the challenges that you have in terms of data and network security for your computers, are the same challenges as you would have in a physical security setting. So, one of the challenges that we are seeing is bringing these two together in a convergent security and you need lots of skills; you need skills in software, in hardware, in high frequency and data encryption in network security. To be able to solve this problem you need a broad range of skills and be able to go across all of these different disciplines.

What makes us unique is really the ability to have under one roof different skill sets and working together on these larger mission type problems, larger grand challenge problems, as we call them, and being able to pull in people and teams and work together, not only with ourselves, but also with industry and other UK universities and centres when we really don’t have all of the necessary skills to help fill some of the gaps. So I think that’s the groundbreaking aspect, being able to do something quite revolutionary across the board and across the disciplines.


One of the projects under way is looking at dramatically improving the way we use CCTV for crime prevention and detection on public transport as researcher Dr Paul Miller explains.

Dr Paul Miller [PM]

Current CCTV systems are basically passive in nature in that what they simply do is record data which is stored in very, very large video databases so most of the data isn’t looked at or analysed. What sometimes happens is that after several days the police might report an incident and come looking for some of the video of a particular incident. But the problem with that is that it is after the fact. What we’re trying to do is to transform CCTV into an active technology that can alert security analysis of police to a particular instance that maybe is occurring, or is about to occur so that they can try and prevent the crime or the assault that’s occurring. So, I would say that’s a major focus of our work, this idea of taking passive technology and turning it into something active so that it can prevent crime.

One of the other things that we use are crime statistics of areas and also the time of day. So for example, you may have a situation on the upper deck of a bus at say Friday night, 11 o’clock. You notice that three people get up and start to move towards another passenger who is maybe the only other passenger on the upper deck. At that point the system may decide that the threat assessment here is high. It can start streaming the video back to the security analysis when a decision can be made as to whether or not a potential assault is about to occur and decide to intervene and ask the three people to move back to their seats. So that could be an instance where it could prevent an assault occurring.


Another project lead by Dr Sakir Sezer is looking at ways of making internet surfing significantly safer.

Dr Sakir Sezer [SS]

One of the areas of research which is coming out of our previous research is chip technologies that will accelerate security processing. The research in this field was covering all the encryption type hardware that has been done and also processing technology that can analyse content defined in a particular language. We believe that these two technologies are essential to give the necessary performance and computing power to the internet to make it a safer place. This technology can analyse, for example, any chat room if somebody is being groomed; the way the person is talking, the wording being used, certain grammar or sentences that paedophiles would use or even raise alarms saying this is not the type of language that a child would use or the pattern. This nature can be flagged up by writing comprehensive rules looking at the patterns of individuals accessing the internet and isolating by flagging up potential paedophiles. We believe this technology will allow not only passive after event analyse of the log files, but also doing it online directly when it happens, even flagging to the provider of such chat rooms saying this is flagged yellow, this is flagged red, this individual seems to not fit into this environment or has started a conversation that is not appropriate for this chat room.


A vital part of the work at CSIT involves turning the research into real benefits for society and the economy as Doctor Godfrey Gaston explains.


The measure of success, as far as we are concerned for CSIT, will be based on not just the quality of the research that will be important, but also the outputs in terms of commercialisation and knowledge transfer. That might be spin-out companies with licensing deals that could be training people from industry in terms of developing skills and doing career development for industrial employees. One example of the commercialisation is actually the creation of a spin-out company, for example Titan IC Systems, and where we’re trying to take the research into a much more commercial domain. So what Titan’s involved in is really looking at the next generation of internet, making sure that it’s traffic is free from viruses, free from malware and essentially that to change the whole model of the internet the requirement is to have very high speed processors that are able to essentially filter out all this unwanted content and identify unwanted content on the internet. So to do that at the minute is not possible, we need to have much faster processes. So Titan is one example of a company that has spun-out of a university and we will hopefully see many more companies like that spinning out and being able to make it in the commercial world. I think it’s important to be able to spin out these companies and to have the mechanisms in place and processes in place so that businesses interested in linking up with research can do so in spin-outs rather than through universities.


The new multi million pound centre is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Technology Strategy Board, Queens University Belfast and a range of partner organisations. You can find out more about the centre for secure information technologies at the Queen’s University Belfast website.