Protecting the future: working together to combat tomorrow's cyber-security risks

Professor Chris Hankin demonstrates that with the advancement of cyber technology, our methods of connecting with and traveling between each other grow more sophisticated as well.

Professor Chris Hankin, director of the Institute for Security Science and Technology, Imperial College
Professor Chris Hankin, director of the Institute for Security Science and Technology, Imperial College

Digital communications and the inexorable rise of the internet are showing no sign of slowing down in development. It's predicted that as many as 50 billion devices could be connected to the internet by 2020. As cyber-technology grows more sophisticated, so do our methods of connecting with and traveling between each other. It's a cliché, perhaps, but an interesting thought nonetheless that the world really is 'growing smaller' every day.

These enhancements to our personal freedom are great news; however they also bring with them inevitable concerns around ongoing security. As each technological development launches, somebody, somewhere, may well be working on ways to hack into its system and breach its security protocols. It's up to us to keep pace not only with technological possibilities, therefore, but also with our own cyber-security safeguards.

As director of The Institute for Security Science and Technology at Imperial College in London, I lead a team that interacts with many different areas of science and technology. We work with colleagues across the university and, indeed, the international world of academia, on a whole raft of security projects. Most importantly, we also liaise with key figures in industry and government who have direct links with security in their work. It's a fascinating area, but also one that has opened my eyes to the very real need for joint working such as this. In order to thwart current and future cyber-risks to the transport sector, we need joint solutions that work across the entire network. Academics, industry specialists and government officials must all have their say.

If we take the example of border security, especially in the context of airports and the mass movement of cargo and people, we can see a great need for 'joined-up thinking'. Global travel remains popular, and the physical numbers of passengers using airports to travel for business and pleasure is increasing every year. Internet shopping has put a greater demand on freight services too, as more and more parcels are sent internationally than ever before.

Scientists are working on all kinds of solutions to keep people and cargo safe. These include trialling techniques to spot substances dissolved in liquids, as well as ways to scan parcels without having to open them as they pass through customs. Also, more prosaic, yet no less important areas, such as making sure passengers don't lose their luggage or get stuck in long queues at security check points.

However, this exciting work would never see the light of day without the co-operation and interaction of the governments overseeing border security rules and regulations, nor the funding and support that comes from the hard hitters of industry.

Looking to the future, another area of huge interest to all is the development of autonomous vehicles, or 'driverless cars'. Again, this is an exciting arena, and one which could change the entire way we use our roads and interact with our cars. Some automation is already happening in the mainstream motor industry. Many high-end cars have sophisticated computers to regulate fuel efficiency, passenger safety functions and so forth. We are starting to rely heavily on new technology to enhance our driving experience.

Yet, autonomous vehicles also bring enormous cyber-security implications with them that scientists cannot combat alone. What would happen, for example, if a driverless car encountered an emergency situation on the road ahead, and had to react immediately? Should it veer off to the pavement, or crash into whatever is blocking it ahead? If a computer takes the decision, it removes the control from the driver and may not result in the safest outcome. More frighteningly, if the vehicle's system is hacked into and reprogrammed by someone with ill intent, this could lead to disaster if the car is 'instructed' to crash into a building, for example, as part of a cyber-attack that the people inside it would be powerless to prevent. Again, the car manufacturers are turning more and more to academia to research potential cyber-security risks such as this. Autonomous vehicles are a very exciting area of technology, it is true, but one that we must all take great care to monitor and protect.

Contributed by Professor Chris Hankin, director of the Institute for Security Science and Technology, Imperial College

Professor Chris Hankin sits on the Advisory Board of Transport Security Expo 2015, which takes place on 2 and 3 December 2015 at Olympia, London.