CYBER SECURITY: How safe are you online?

February 12, 2013 - 12:00:00 am

By Isabel Ovalle

The internet is a global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardised communication protocols. This is the definition offered by the Oxford dictionary.

For most of us, the internet is an asset -- a tool that has become so much a part of our lives that we blindly share all kinds of professional and personal information on it.

Much has happened since ‘The Net’, starring Sandra Bullock, was released in 1995. In that hit film, the protagonist was the centre of a web of computer espionage. Back then the internet was new and few people owned a desktop or laptop. Ignorance was the key to wooing users. 

Almost 20 years on, cybersecurity is still an issue. To address this matter, Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMUQ) gathered a panel of experts yesterday at its Education City campus to discuss ‘The Role of Cybersecurity in Maintaining Public Security’, under the Patronage of

H E Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, Minister of State for Interior Affairs.

Dr Raj Reddy, Moza bint Nasser University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, talked about the relevance of education in cybersecurity. “It depends on the awareness of every citizen, without awareness in this field, we damage the rest of the users,” he said.

The keys to guaranteeing the safety of online navigation are in the hands of the user, who must review shared content, audit emails and be on the lookout for account alerts or account freezing.

On this basis, Dr Reddy enumerated some of the biggest threats an internet user can face, such as malware or spyware, viruses, Trojans, worms (which can’t be easily found) and Distributed Denial of Service. In this context, the professor called for more awareness within governments and institutions as well.

The answer to these problems is a self-healing network, paired with cyber hygiene, explained Dr Reddy. The professor referred to some of the steps that must be taken to maintain cyber hygiene: enabling automatic updates, installing security software for USB sticks, having strong passwords, not opening files sent by unknown persons, backing up critical information, not falling for hoaxes, and keeping in mind that what you do affects everyone else.

Dr Gordon Bell, a distinguished scholar from Microsoft Research, reminisced about his career: “I used to say, I’m not at all worried about security.” Fifteen years later, he pointed users to basic mechanisms to implement security: authenticating, authorising and auditing.

The Microsoft researcher was surprised by the way youth share so much of their personal lives online, especially on social networks, where, he joked, users frequently “say the wrong things, unaware that their comments are public.” On this basis, he referred to the recommendations of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who pushes for “trustworthy computing.”

Dr Ahmed Elmagarmid, Executive Director of Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), which focuses on Arabic language technology and content, cybersecurity and data analysis, among other areas, also offered his views on the subject.

Emgarmid said that in a “very digital” country like Qatar, many citizens feel that their systems aren’t secure. “Nevertheless, young people still put everything on social networks and feel secure. If you can feel secure when you’re not, you can be secured even if you don’t feel it,” he added.

There are sites like 123People or People Finder that compile information posted on various platforms by users in order to offer them for free to a third party. This information is accessible to schools or recruiters and can also reveal details about children or teenagers. “It’s a very scary prospect,” he concluded.

Staff Major General Saad bin Jassim Al Khulaifi, Director General of Public Security, talked about the most important provisions of the strategic plan for cybersecurity and combating cyber crimes.

The Ministry of Interior is working to transfer and localise knowledge and experience from universities and international institutions, while simultaneously motivating research, creativity, innovation and development in this field.

The chief of police explained that the ministry had also established a cybersecurity system at the national level in cooperation with partners in the public and private sectors, with the aim of ensuring steady communications and information technology services in cases of emergencies and cyberattacks.

Al Khulaifi added that “the percentage of cybercrimes is extraordinarily increasing, which requires intensive effort and cooperation of the community at all levels.” In response to this trend, the ministry has established a Cyber Crimes Investigation Center and Information Security Center.

On his part, Ilker Baybars, Dean of CMUQ, acting as moderator, commented that “many computers get attacked and abused by both individuals and organisations. We have made a lot of progress in the area of cybersecurity; however people are still not aware of how to use these systems safely. Carnegie Mellon is at the forefront of this vital research.”

“This research becomes ever more necessary, as more teenagers trust social media sites and expose their personal information online. Through education we can raise awareness so that a strong message is delivered about how to use technology safely,” he added.

The Peninsula