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Protecting your data    Jan 28, 2019

Protecting your data
Jan 28, 2019

Our data is continuously being processed, whether we are at work, home, or on the road. Yet despite the vast amount of information we, sometimes unknowingly, pour into the digital world we are generally unfamiliar with the risks related to the protection of our data. Today on “Data Protection Day”, we talk with Ph.D. student Pieter Robyns who researches wireless information security and privacy at UHasselt.    

CELEBRATING PRIVACY

“Privacy is one of the biggest problems in this new electronic age” – Andy Grove. 

Today it’s “Data Protection Day”, also known as data privacy day. A day to remind us all about our right to privacy and what data protection is all about. It marks the anniversary of the signing of the Council of Europe’s data protection convention, Convention 108, almost 40 years ago in 1981. This was the first legally binding international treaty, which dealt with the protection of personal data and privacy. It recognized the necessity to “reconcile the fundamental values of respect for privacy and the free flow of information between peoples” and has since already been ratified by 50 countries across the globe.

However, aside from new policies, laws, and treaties, also technological advancements are required to catch up with the constant challenges and threats that we are facing. This is where the Ph.D. project of Pieter Robyns comes into play. “Whether you are casually surfing on the Internet or sending messages to your friends and family, there is simply no situation where you want a hacker to violate your privacy. As a security and privacy researcher, I try to make sure this doesn’t happen by seeking out the vulnerabilities in the hardware or software of, for example, your smartphone.”

A PASSION FOR INFORMATION SECURITY

“My passion for data security already originated during my childhood, when a friend of my parents taught me how to program”, Pieter explains. “I was especially fascinated by hacking, which eventually snowballed in me starting a Ph.D. in information security. It is an exciting and rapidly-evolving field, and it's important for companies to keep up with the latest developments in order to prevent data leaks and unwanted intruders."

“To be a bit more specific, I am looking at wireless security and privacy. This basically means everything that is related to data protection in wireless networks. This is quite a broad topic, but it gives me freedom as well as a lot of variety. During the first part of my Ph.D., I investigated mistakes in protocols that wireless devices, like laptops and smartphones, use to communicate with one another. Back then, we discovered a security threat in Apple devices as well as a vulnerability in the Wi-Fi standard.”

ELECTROMAGNETIC CLUES

“Currently, I am looking at the electromagnetic radiation that computers and smartphones emit when they are doing calculations. What many people don’t realize is that you can deduct sensitive information from this radiation, like cryptographic keys or even which keys you are hitting on your keyboard. This is because of the fact that certain calculations require less or more power, resulting in less or more radiation being emitted. By analyzing these patterns in the radiation we can monitor whether you are leaking sensitive information or not. Using techniques from the field of artificial intelligence such as neural networks, this can even be done with very inexpensive hardware. 

“Personally, as a computer scientist, I think the security and privacy of people are of great importance. That’s why all my publications, datasets and software are freely available for everyone on Github. I hope to further contribute to this field in the future. If that will be through more research or perhaps a startup I don’t know yet.”