Published: 01st December 2018
Not enough people understand cyberspace: UNSW's cyber expert Richard Buckland
Smart, knowledgeable and witty, UNSW's Richard Buckland tells us how cyberwar, called the fifth domain of war could be looming on us and why who we are on social media could shape the world
I reached the Taj Coromandel, pretty anxious — firstly, because I didn't know the place and secondly because I had to interview a professor from Australia, who I thought would be starchy and formal. I was waiting at the lobby for him to finish another interview. And then there was this tall, good-looking man with evident charm, who walked towards me and said, "Hi, you are supposed to interview me, should we begin?" There is this certain elegance about him that you definitely cannot miss, some might say it's because he's a knowledgeable man but personally, I thought he was the smartest and wittiest professor I had met in quite a long time. Whichever it is, when you are a Professor in Cybercrime, Cyberwar and Cyberterror at the School of Computer Science and Engineering the University of New South Wales, Richard Buckland is a man whose trade is always in demand.
Prior to the interview, my photographer and I asked him if he could pose for some still pictures outside in the lobby, he said, "Yes, I will. But you have to say something funny to make me smile for the photos." We came up with the word whiskey instead of the quintessential say cheese. And professor Buckland was delighted to say the word and pose for photos. Then he came up to me, right before we set up our camera for the interview, and he said, "Do you drink? I don't. But, whiskey is actually better than saying cheese. That's what I realised today," and he laughed.
We discussed religious beliefs in India, women empowerment and a lot more about whiskey before we went into a formal conservation regarding the pros and cons of the cyber world. Here are excerpts from an extremely engaging and fun conversation:
In Hollywood, they have been making movies about the future and they tend to emphasise on the fact that there might be another world war. Do you think it could be a cyberwar?
(Pic: Nakshatra Krishnamoorthy)
Yes, of course, it could be. It is now generally accepted that we call cyberwar the fifth domain of war. In the last couple of years, it has been a universally accepted term. And all major countries including India and Australia are building up a massive cyber defensive and an offensive system to counter it. A former director of Intelligence in the United States said recently that if there is a chance of a world war, that he didn't think there would be a major world war in the next five years, but then he paused and said, 'Except in cyber. That's already almost happening'.
We have seen the attacks on Ukraine, Estonia, there have been problems between India and Pakistan, attacks from North Korea, so these are already happening. Espionage, where military secrets and commercial secrets are stolen from all major countries by each other, is a form of economic warfare. It is cheap and it's clearly the easiest form of warfare now. Humans aren't hurt and your presence and identity are hidden. I think it will increase until we learn how to defend ourselves against it. I feel we are gradually moving from an internet of trust to one of attack and exploitation.
WhatsApp and Facebook are trying to regulate fake news. Do you think people's persona on social media is largely genuine?
I think everyone is faking it, in a way when you walk down the street you are faking it, we construct the way we look. It's very hard to be authentic and honest in everything we do. There is nothing wrong and it is completely human to think that you should make yourself look good when other people are observing you, be it on the roads or on social media. You adjust your behaviour because of that. There is a problem because people's behaviour on social media is a new thing that we don't fully understand. People are being thrown out of their jobs for maybe something they had said 10 years ago. The dangers of fake news, of knowledge not being respected, of honesty, and popularity being given more importance than quality and expertise — these are serious problems for mankind. But, social media is not only a problem but also a great benefit to mankind. India's power is its people. Facebook and social media lets you tap into that, lets people speak their minds. With that benefit also comes responsibility so it's important we continue to discuss this. We have to move slowly and carefully and, together, head into this unknown world.
As somebody who's seen digital threats like scamming and phishing, what's your greatest cyber fear?
My main fear is that we don't have enough people that understand cyber. The problem may be fixed in a generation or two but in the foreseeable future, there's a shortfall of people with the right kind of knowledge. There are no built-in reactions to cyber threats. It's not like when we hear a car, we pause and then cross. We don't have these reactions for cyber. So my biggest fear is the world doesn't have enough trained people because cyber education isn't good enough and it definitely is not universal yet.
In India, there's a very large divide between academia and industry. How in tune are professors and students with cybersecurity and related threats elsewhere?
(Pic: Nakshatra Krishnamoorthy)
In cybersecurity, in particular, there is a big gap between theory and practice, it's a new field and it's happening all around us now. Once you know how to work on it and become good at it there's so much money you can make working in the industry that there is a temptation for all the strong academics to be gobbled up. One of my students was offered a car just to sign the contract, and you know academics don't earn that much. So there is a gap, but engineering has always had this gap, and how we solved it as engineers is that we had experts teach the students what they need to know.
Is computing about natural talent or is it something you can learn?
I think we have this myth that it is all natural talent and not something you can learn and it's probably that way because of our older generations when there were not many ways to learn to compute when it was a comparatively new subject. Which is why most senior people that we see now are all self-taught. Computing is for everyone. It is to solve mankind's problems and help everyone. You can be trained to perfect the art of computing and if you are lucky and blessed you start with a lot of natural talent, but even when you don't start off with talent, it's upon all of us to get trained and try and become the best at what we are doing. Be the best people we can. At the end of the day, it is 90 per cent hard work.