Take 10 with... Rizwan Asghar

Dr Rizwan Asghar, from the Department of Computer Science, gives us 10 minutes of his time to discuss cyber security and privacy challenges.

Dr Rizwan Asghar, Department of Computer
Dr Rizwan Asghar, Department of Computer

1.  Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Combating cyber attacks and preserving users’ privacy in untrusted environments.

2.  Now explain it in everyday terms!

Due to the threat of cyber attacks, cyber security has become an emerging area of research. The major issue is that users’ privacy could easily be compromised if proper protection techniques are not employed while storing their data, in particular, on ‘untrusted’ servers, such as Dropbox and Amazon. I investigate how to build secure systems that can withstand potential cyber attacks and ensure users’ privacy without putting too much trust on third party service providers. For instance, Dropbox or Amazon employees might compromise users’ privacy by gaining physical access to the machines where the data is stored. To address such issues, we design solutions that allow Dropbox or Amazon to store and process data in an encrypted manner, thus giving no access to plaintext data to rogue employees or other attackers even when they gain physical access to the machines.

3.  Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

In general, my research activities include reading research articles, brainstorming about ideas, supervising students, mentoring researchers, writing research articles, writing grant proposals, attending project meetings, reviewing research articles, examining theses and dissertations, preparing and giving research talks, and meetings with research collaborators and industry.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

I enjoy my system-level research combining both theory and practice, where I investigate novel approaches for solving cyber security and privacy issues faced by individuals and enterprises.

5.  Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

For me, introducing cyber security to the Computer Science education was quite an amazing experience. As part of the postgraduate-level course, we asked students to do a group project that included both a development phase (to build a secure system) and an attack phase (for trying to break the other groups' systems). Next, in the project presentations held in 2016, I was surprised to see that some students, who never asked any question in class, initiated some interesting and engaging discussions in the Q&A sessions.

6.  What questions have emerged as a result?

The main research question that emerged as a result of this surprise was whether there is a positive change in students’ learning at the end of this group project.

7.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

One of the challenges we faced in our research was how to capture and show this positive change that we observed in 2016. To address this challenge, in 2017, we asked students to participate in two anonymous questionnaires: pre-attack and post-attack. Our results demonstrated statistically a positive change in students’ perception during the learning process when we repeated similar questions in both questionnaires. Fortunately, our work led to the development of a novel method for teaching and learning cyber security, where students learned a lot from their peers about how to properly secure complex systems.

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

My research work could directly improve cyber security in New Zealand and globally.

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

Luckily, I collaborate with different groups within as well as across the department. In order to conduct multidisciplinary research, we have established a Cyber Security Foundry (CSF), where I am one of its Founding Members. CSF will be a hub for industry-focused research based on next-generation technology. In New Zealand, I am collaborating with academia and industry through my active involvement in the MBIE-funded project STRATUS (NZD 12.2+ M budget). Internationally, I have been collaborating with several world-renowned and emerging researchers. All these collaborations help me identify interesting research problems and brainstorm about novel solutions, thus making my research career an exciting journey of my life.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research selves?

Sharing research ideas, finding a good mentor, publishing work at top-notch research venues, writing more grant proposals, and persistently keep submitting grant applications!