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UK boffins get £3.8m pot to probe 'science of cyber-security'

GCHQ taps up universities, expects results

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GCHQ, the UK's nerve-centre for eavesdropping spooks, has established what's billed as Blighty's first academic research institute to investigate the "science of cyber security".

The lab - which was set up with the Research Councils' Global Uncertainties Programme and the government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills - is a virtual organisation involving several universities.

The institute will throw together leading computer science academics, mathematicians and social scientists - the latter being useful for studying the behaviours of criminals - to improve the nation's security strategies. The outfit, funded by a £3.8m grant, will link up experts in the UK and overseas. It's hoped that both the private sector and government will gain from the fruits of this collaboration, which will run for at least three and a half years, starting next month.

Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude, who oversees cyber-security, said: "The UK is one of the most secure places in the world to do business - already 8 per cent of our GDP is generated from the cyber world and that trend is set to grow. But we are not complacent."

Participating universities were selected following a tough competitive process. The successful teams were: University College London, working with University of Aberdeen; Imperial College, working with Queen Mary College and Royal Holloway, University of London; and Newcastle University and Royal Holloway, working with Northumbria University.

University College London was selected to host the Research Institute, and Professor Angela Sasse will take the role of director of research.

The establishment of the institute is part of the UK's wider IT security plan, which aims to make the UK one of the most secure places in the world to do business among other objectives. GCHQ has been given a starring role in putting together the nation's cyber-security strategy, and the lion's share of a £650m budget following a recent defence review.

Future plans include a scheme to establish a second research institute, increased sponsorship of PhD research, and a scheme to highlight so-called Academic Centres of Excellence in Cyber Security Education. Eight UK universities have already gained this status. The eight universities are: University of Bristol, Imperial College London, Lancaster University, University of Oxford, Queen’s University Belfast, Royal Holloway, University of Southampton and University College London.

No sign of Cambridge on GCHQ list

A lot of cutting-edge security research is taking place at universities outside this scheme, most obviously by Ross Anderson's group at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory. Anderson's team is well-known for exposing shortcomings in banking security, providing expert advice to various parliamentary committees, and criticising trusted computing and government policy that relates to information security - such as the protection of massive databases and health records. Anderson's group guards its independence jealously and that probably explains why it's not on the GCHQ list.

Other interesting courses outside the centre of excellence programme include the ethical hacking degree course at Abertay University in Dundee. The course has been successful in getting people into work in various companies, by developing security skills suitable for the real business world. The course aims to develop practical skills and a hacker's mindset in students, but with a grounding in ethics, giving graduates a skill-set absent from traditional computer science degrees.

News of the institute emerged in the same week that professional security certification body (ISC)2suggested that instead of cooperating with security organisations and building on their existing know-how, government bigwigs often just start from scratch with IT security. The certification body said that collaboration with experts and academics was the only solution that would work in the long term.

Paul Davis, the director for Europe at security tools firm FireEye, commented: "When it comes to IT security and international cybercrime, there seems to be an ongoing sense of inaction and complacency. In fact, GCHQ recently admitted that businesses are failing to do enough to protect themselves from ‘real and credible threats to cybersecurity’ – and in that respect, this is very welcome news indeed." ®

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