The University of Newcastle, Australia

Cybersecurity and defending the digital frontier

A renowned cybersecurity authority, Professor Vijay Varadharajan works with government, industry and research peers to thwart pervasive digital threats lurking within our online systems.

Professor Vijay Varadharajan smiling in front of computer

Technology has become hardwired into our modern lives. From tracking our health and finances, running our cars and allowing us to travel and communicate. Technology can even manage our household appliances while we’re at work. But how trustworthy is technology?

In an age when technology is everywhere, and knows all our private information, the concept of cybersecurity is now paramount to individuals, businesses and societies. A globally respected cybersecurity authority, Professor Vijay Varadharajan is working to protect new technology and its users from hidden digital threats.

“Technology is pervasive. Anything we do nowadays in our daily lives involves some form of technology. My work operates in the context of protection, security and trust. It’s about understanding the safety and security challenges posed by our digital world.

“For example, is the technology doing what it is supposed to do? How can we trust technology and the decisions made by technology? How can we develop technologies that are secure, that we can trust to keep our information private?

“My work helps to secure technologies, and the various applications in the different business sectors that use these technologies. It also informs regulations and policies associated with these technologies.”

Safeguarding our online systems

In our business and personal lives, almost everyone is connected to one or more digital systems. These systems talk to each other, sometimes without human intervention, sharing private information and data. Alarmingly, they can also be susceptible to a multitude of threats that can compromise our privacy.

“From the moment someone is born, they are entered into the healthcare system, then the education system, social systems, travel systems, leisure systems. In such an environment, one bug or error in one system has the potential to affect another system.

“These flaws could happen inadvertently or deliberately. My work is mainly concerned with deliberate, malicious acts where bugs are introduced with the intention of attacking and cheating others.”

In partnership with industry and government, Vijay is helping to develop robust technologies and strategies that can identify and eliminate cybersecurity threats before they cause harm. Given the multitude of technologies and their interconnected nature, Vijay admits that detecting potential digital threats, counteracting them and attributing them to the attackers all pose some difficult challenges.

“When it comes to protection, how can we design techniques to detect these malicious errors? How to counteract them? We want to be able to trust that our systems are doing what they are supposed to be doing. But the only way to really trust our technology is to ensure that these bugs and flaws do not exist in our system—or our system of systems.”

Plugging into global networks

Vijay’s contributions to cybersecurity strategies and trustworthy computing have been recognised by industry, universities and government worldwide. He has held appointments on advisory boards in government and across prominent international companies. This includes appointments with Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, as well as the Australian Government’s Peak Security Advisory Body, the Prime Ministerial Cyber Security Task Force, the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia and more…

“The strategies and policies we have developed, especially the government policies, have affected millions of people. For example, I led a government taskforce to create internet-filtering techniques that could block obscene and violent sites in Australia. This is an ongoing issue for many countries.”

Vijay has also directly contributed to the development of new cybersecurity technologies that have generated hundreds of millions of dollars for business. Under his leadership with the Worldwide Security Research for HP Labs in Bristol, UK, six security technologies were transferred into successful and high-value HP products.

“I have generated new ideas in a range of technologies, covering the spectrum of operating systems, distributed systems, wired, wireless and mobile networks, mobile devices and various applications in finance, healthcare and telecom sectors.”

Then as Microsoft Chair Professor (which was the first one of this kind in the world), Vijay has contributed to design of new technologies as well as achieved transfer of security technology and influenced Microsoft US strategies and policies related to cyber security.

Since taking up the roles of Global Innovation Chair in Cyber Security and Director of Advanced Cyber Security Engineering Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, Vijay’s work has placed our University at the forefront of cybersecurity discussions, research, education and industry engagement. In 2017, the researcher’s outstanding contributions in the field of science, engineering and technology related to cybersecurity were recognised when he received the Mahatma Gandhi Pravasi Samman award—a prestigious global achievement.

Educating people in cybersecurity

An important component of cybersecurity is education. Adamant that “transferring knowledge can transform lives”, Vijay has supervised close to 40 PhD students in the area of cybersecurity in the UK and Australia. He has also developed cybersecurity postgraduate programs at three Australian universities, and held multiple visiting positions at universities in the UK, Singapore, China and India.

Outside of a university setting, Vijay also regularly contributes his expertise to the education of communities. For more than seven years, he has helped deliver technology education programs for secondary school students. Vijay has also participated in several volunteering initiatives focused on promoting cybersecurity awareness and measures to the older generation.

“We have been teaching people about basic cybersecurity measures, such as how to protect their personal information when conducting online financial transactions. It’s vital that we continue to educate citizens about cybersecurity and how to be careful when using technologies. We don’t want people falling prey to frauds, which happens on a regular basis.”

The message is clear: while technology can make our lives more convenient, connected and efficient, it also comes with serious security threats. As technology advances globally, cybersecurity must remain top of mind for citizens and businesses alike.

“As our lives become filled with many different technologies and new ones continue to be developed, the bottom line is that it is critical that we are able to trust these technologies, and each other, when using online services in our daily lives.”