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Waterloo Cybersecurity Institute Fighting Global Cybercrime

Florian Kerschbaum

Executive Director, University of Waterloo’s Cybersecurity & Privacy Institute

Cybersecurity research is transforming the industry. Learn how the University of Waterloo plans to help Canada become a global leader. 

In 2017, the federal government conducted the Canadian Survey of Cyber Security and Cybercrime to better understand how cybercrime affects businesses in the country. Up to 21% of all businesses, be they small- and medium-sized or large enterprises, reported being hit with a cybersecurity incident that impacted operations.

Canada’s new cybersecurity strategy says that cybercrime costs the country over $3 billion annually, while the worldwide figure is expected to balloon to as much as $6 trillion (U.S.) by 2021. Protecting information and infrastructure has become an expensive task for all involved.

Setting new innovations in motion

This is the battleground that the University of Waterloo’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute is preparing for. Researchers at the institute want to foster communication and collaboration between society, industry, governments, and academia to better understand how the university’s work can have an impact beyond Canada’s borders.

“We have one of the leading programs in computer science and electrical and computer engineering in Canada and in the world, plus the strongest research experience and profile in cybersecurity and privacy in the country,” says Florian Kerschbaum, the institute’s Executive Director. “We’re engaging with a number of partners on various subjects that include privacy, network security, data security, software security, and IT projects that work on innovation in these areas.”

Kerschbaum believes the effect is two-fold. Researchers learn about current threats and developments related to cybersecurity and privacy, while findings can turn into practical real-world results that can benefit Canada’s future in those areas. 

One example was the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) adopting public key cryptography created by a spin-off company started by cryptography researchers at Waterloo. Another came from other researchers who created and transferred systems like “off-the-record messaging” that popular messaging apps integrated. 

It’s very important to have start-ups because they’re the key to innovating products quickly and bringing them to market.

Florian Kerschbaum

Building anew

“It’s very important to have start-ups because they’re the key to innovating products quickly and bringing them to market,” says Kerschbaum. “They’re looking for the highest-skilled employees, so the skills students learn at the university from our professors can make them leaders in their respective fields.”

That also includes emerging and developing technologies, like artificial intelligence, blockchain, and quantum computing, all of which Kerschbaum says will play roles in cybersecurity and privacy in the years to come. 

For their part, Kerschbaum thinks that businesses should be more proactive and vigilant in protecting themselves from cyberattacks. Data breaches can sour a vendor’s reputation, and he believes it won’t be possible for them to have a sustainable future without plans and contingencies in place. New technologies to help deploy those tools are already underway, he adds, putting Canada on the proverbial map as a global leader.

“The University of Waterloo has always been at the forefront of cybersecurity research that actually transfers over into industry,” says Kerschbaum. “Canada has the opportunity to position itself as a trusted partner and provider of cybersecurity for the government and almost all countries in the world.”  

Ted Kritsonis

The Three Pillars of Cybersecurity: Industry, Policy, and Research

Sanjeev Gill

Associate Vice President – Innovation, University of Waterloo

In a world where devices outnumber people and attackers are becoming more creative, cybersecurity is too important and too complex for a fragmented approach — a multi-tiered, integrated strategy is required.

The field of cybersecurity includes a range of complex knowledge areas, from cryptography to machine learning and policymaking. The issues it presents — a growing concern for regulators worldwide — must be tackled collaboratively. Strong connections between researchers and industry are one crucial way to drive innovation in the field. At the University of Waterloo’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, this type of coordination is at the forefront of the research mandate.

Transferring skills from research to industry

“This is not just a Waterloo challenge — it’s a government, industry, and academic institution challenge,” says Sanjeev Gill, Associate Vice President of Innovation at the University of Waterloo. “Hackers are well-funded (and sometimes state-funded) entities with massive resources and phenomenal talent. There’s constant churn, and a growing need within industry for refreshing cybersecurity skills. It’s important to be able to effectively and efficiently translate what’s going on in the research world into teachable assets for the world of industry.”

The University of Waterloo is developing leading initiatives to address these challenges for industry. Since the cybersecurity needs of businesses evolve at such a rapid pace, expecting mid or late-career professionals to attend years-long training programs is unrealistic and ineffective. Micro-credentials and relatively quick training for professionals at all levels, all the way up to executive leadership, are under development at the university.

Strong connections between researchers and industry are one crucial way to drive innovation in the field.

Industry-driven innovation is at the core of Waterloo’s research mandate

“It all starts with having industry at the table,” says Gill. “Given our deep bench strength in cybersecurity, we feel it’s our obligation to help address the needs of Canadian industry. But no one institution can service all of the industry — we see the University of Waterloo as a leader in building a consortium of academic, industry, and government participants to shape a national strategy to address the ever-increasing demand for cybersecurity skills.”  

The University of Waterloo already has an impressive list of industry-driven accomplishments, from an ANSI-standard digital signature scheme developed to a crucial scheduling algorithm for TOR. The institute is open to new industry partnerships to forge the future of Canadian cybersecurity.  

Liza Agrba

How the University of Waterloo’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute Is Driving Canadian Innovation

Ian Goldberg

Canada Research Chair – Privacy Enhancing Technologies & Professor– Cheriton School of Computer Science, University of Waterloo

Privacy issues are a growing priority for policy-makers around the world, and Canada can help shape the future by leading this conversation.

Digital disruption is evolving the cybersecurity landscape at breakneck speed. Privacy legislation is far from uniform across the globe, and compliance with said legislation — even in jurisdictions with relatively robust laws, like Europe and Canada — is likewise inconsistent. Meanwhile, massive quantities of personal data are being collected, stored, and distributed in ways that are unknown to the average user.

Policy must keep up with the pace of technology, and businesses must, in turn, adjust their activities in line with privacy best practices — especially given the increasing frequency of data breaches. 

Maintaining personal privacy is increasingly becoming a concern for Canadians, and the University of Waterloo has the nation’s foremost education and research program led by Canada Research Chair in Privacy Enhancing Technologies Ian Goldberg. “Many companies store unnecessary amounts of personal data and distribute it inappropriately,” says Goldberg. “This is a major liability. Companies should be much more fastidious about what data they collect and how they use it.”

The world needs strong, collaborative research centres, where security specialists work together to tackle a growing range of cybersecurity problems and create recommendations for policy-makers.

Leading-edge research centres are the key to a future where personal data is safe

To address these problems, the world needs strong, collaborative research centres, where security specialists work together to tackle a growing range of cybersecurity problems and create recommendations for policy-makers. Canada has the potential to be a global force in cybersecurity, and with world-leading research strengths in everything from cryptography to machine learning, the University of Waterloo is uniquely well-positioned to drive Canadian innovation. 

Professor Goldberg and his team have created innovative messaging systems that maintain privacy. Off The Record Messaging (OTR) protects the security and privacy of Internet communications, and later systems, adapting their work to the mobile setting, are used by billions of people around the world. Just as many of the methods that ensure the security of our current cell phone communication were created by University of Waterloo research, ensuring Canadians maintain personal privacy and Canadian companies protect private data is a central goal of the privacy enhancing technologies group.

Liza Agrba

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