New U.K. Cybersecurity Centre Opens Doors

Centre for Secure Information Technologies to develop systems to be deployed at the core of next-generation computer and telecom networks

September 24, 2009

7 Min Read


Leading edge research that will help keep crime off the internet and combat anti-social behaviour and street crime is to be unveiled today at the official opening of the UK's lead cyber security research centre.

The new £30 million Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) at Queen's University Belfast's Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology, has been set up to exploit the university's international research expertise in high performance data and network security and intelligent surveillance.

The centre is one of the first Innovation and Knowledge Centres (IKCs) created in the UK. Funders include the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board. In addition, to date, 20 organisations have committed to support CSIT's work over the next five years. They include industrial partners such as BAe Systems and Thales UK as well as government agencies and international research institutes.

One of CSIT's fundamental challenges is to develop systems to be deployed at the core of next generation computer and telecoms networks to provide much higher levels of protection than is possible with the Internet security tools installed on today's PCs.

Making this a reality will require significant advances in high-performance network and content processing technology " two research areas for which Queen's University has earned an international reputation.

Building on this work, CSIT is developing powerful processors capable of screening huge volumes of data - equivalent to the Internet traffic produced by over 10,000 households - for malicious content and behavior in real time.

The processors are the most advanced of their kind and are ideally suited for use at the heart of sophisticated systems controlled by complex sets of rules. These can be written to prevent identity theft and fraud or to protect children from on-line grooming. When an on-line security risk or crime is identified, they will be capable of triggering an immediate response.

CSIT is liaising with a variety of crime and behavioural specialists to create these rule sets and expects to have prototype technology available within three years.

Other major projects underway at CSIT include the development of ultra high performance hardware-based cryptography systems to provide high levels of data security in real time across high speed fixed, mobile and ad hoc networks of devices such as RFID tags. It is anticipated the research will lead to major advances in the secure transmission and storage of data.

By bringing together a wide range of security related research fields and technologies under one roof, CSIT is also aiming to pioneer the convergence of network, data and physical security through the development of new technologies and systems. This work is expected to lead to significant improvements in the effectiveness of CCTV technology in combating anti-social behaviour and street crime.

Currently, while much criminal activity is captured by the UK's four million CCTV cameras, very little is observed in real time because of the high cost of employing sufficient numbers of people to monitor activity on screens. This means that while the data they generate may be used to help prosecute offenders, it is of little value in preventing a crime before it occurs.

CSIT aims to tackle this problem by using innovative hardware and software designed to analyse CCTV camera data in real time. Researchers will also address ways of making best use of that information across a variety of secure communications networks. It is hoped this will enable the development of high performance systems capable of monitoring CCTV footage and automatically alerting security analysts to events that represent a potential security breach or criminal act.

CSIT's research also covers specific areas which have been identified as being of strategic national security importance in major reports produced recently by the British and American governments.

Professor John McCanny, principal investigator at CSIT, believes the new centre is set to become globally recognised thanks to the breadth and depth of its technological capabilities and because it represents a new international paradigm for innovation.

"It is really only now that the international community is beginning to tackle cyber security in a co-ordinated way. Our work at CSIT is therefore of fundamental importance at this critical time in the development of the Internet. It's like being in on the ground floor at the beginning of the semiconductor industry.

"CSIT has an excellent technology platform based on world-leading expertise at Queen's University and ECIT. Our approach to exploiting the commercial and economic benefits of these strengths represents a major advance on how UK universities have attempted this in the past.

"The approach adopted within CIST contrasts with the more conventional way academic research is undertaken. Our starting points tend to be larger "mission-driven" projects involving sizeable teams for which ambitious and challenging end goals have been identified.

"In addition, CSIT has a strong entrepreneurial ethos with a novel commercialisation process built into our management structure. This enables our researchers to work effectively alongside potential customers and specialists from industry and other academic institutions. We are confident that in this way, we will be able to fast track the development of marketable applications of our technologies to the benefit of UK industry and the wider economy as a whole," adds Professor McCanny.

ABOUT CSIT One of the first Innovation and Knowledge Centres (IKCs) created in the UK, CSIT has received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (£7m), the Technology Strategy Board (£2.5m) and Queen's University Belfast (£9m).

In addition, to date, a total of 20 partner organisations have committed to supporting CSIT's work by providing additional funding over the next five years. Ranging from large global players to local SMEs, industrial partners include: BAe Systems and Thales UK.

Public sector agencies and international research centers that will actively support the centre include: Government agencies: Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO); Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL); Home Office Scientific Development Branch (HOSDB); Cyber Security Knowledge Transfer Network.

International Partnerships: Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Computing (TRUST), University of California Berkeley, USA; Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI), South Korea.

A major remit of the centre will be the focus on research commercialisation. This will be in the form of licensing deals, spin-out companies and knowledge transfer partnership programmes. CSIT will work closely with the University business school and the entrepreneurial community to facilitate an environment that will foster innovation and entrepreneurship and ensure wider economic benefit.

Key technologies CSIT's fundamental approach is to incorporate security in telecoms and computer networks through the use of sophisticated content-aware technology and real time traffic forensics. As well as providing security for users this will also allow real-time policing and immediate response to on-line crimes.

CSIT's work in this area is based on recent research at Queen's University, Belfast into the development of novel hardware accelerated processing technologies that are able to keep up with the Internet bandwidth explosion for quality of service and security processing. The university's R&D achievements in this area include a number of high-performance cryptographic and data processing technologies and a wide variety of intellectual properties for Giga- and Terabit networks. Major advances have been made in the areas of network and high-performance content processing systems for extreme-performance Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) and regular expression processing for line rates beyond 40 Gbits/s.

Another major component of CSIT's work in this area is the development of inspection rules that will be used by the processors to perform a wide variety of tasks designed to maintain the Internet as a safe environment. These range from filtering viruses/Trojans at very high data rates, detecting undesirable profiles and preventing cyber attacks on key national infrastructure such as power plants as well as government, financial and corporate systems.

The technology will also be capable of protecting personal computer users by identifying anti-social or criminal behaviour online. When matched to a specific user's profile, grammar based rules would make it possible, for example, to detect an older person who is pretending to be much younger by spotting the use of language not normally used by people of their age group.

The system will work by monitoring and comparing the activities of users based on their unique user profile which in turn is associated with a customized policy and safety policy enforcement rule set. In the case of chat rooms, news groups and social websites, for example, the real time content analysis system will act like a referee, ensuring the rules of the site in question are observed. Where they are broken or where a different type of anomaly might occur (suspected grooming, for example) a variety of responses can be triggered.

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