Nations can no longer afford to go it alone on cyber-security

Cyber-crime knows know borders, so nor should our defences.

Senior representatives from more than 90 governments met in Seoul recently to discuss cyber-space, including cyber-security and cyber-crime. It was the third in a series of international conferences that has followed a push from the UK government to bring a more international perspective to discussions about how to keep cyber-space open while addressing threats.

Cyber-crime does not operate in a world confined by national borders so an international response is our only option. We need to cooperate to protect devices and information infrastructures from malicious entities seeking to steal secrets, deny access to critical services and exploit our identities to commit crimes.

Vulnerable businesses
There is much work to be done. Weaknesses in infrastructures, policy and operations leave us vulnerable and threats to businesses and individuals are frequent and damaging. For example, a sophisticated malicious software recently infected a PC at a small British bakery, then managed to bypass all of the business’s online banking security software and steal £20,000. There is no end to the news of malware, viruses and spam that affect online accounts and home computers.

Recent research indicates that four in five of the UK’s largest quoted companies are unprepared for cyber attacks. The widely reported threats to systems within finance and banking are an uneasy reminder of our vulnerability – and a key priority of the Bank of England and other financial regulators. Even those companies that you might expect to see outsmarting cyber-criminals are not immune. Just a few weeks ago software company Adobe admitted that its system had been hacked and that data from nearly 3 million customers had been stolen. Now there are reports of ransomware attacks across companies in East London’s hi-tech cluster of businesses.

Currently, too many decisions relating to cyber-security rely on inadequate evidence, inconsistent data, deficient reporting and varying rules across networks and systems. This inconsistency on data is apparent in UK government. Two years ago the UK Cabinet Office published a study by Detica, which estimated that cyber-crime costs the UK economy £27bn per year. It gave a breakdown by business sector and type of crime. This type of data is critical for governments, businesses and technology companies to plan appropriate security responses. However, a 2012 study undertaken by Professor Ross Anderson and colleagues for the Ministry of Defence calculated that a more realistic estimate would be closer to £12bn, distributed in significantly different ways to the Detica claims. This would suggest a different pattern of appropriate responses.

Defence beyond borders
A report to which I contributed, Now for the Long Term calls for the creation of an information exchange - CyberEx - to start tackling these issues. It could be funded by governments and businesses with an interest in collecting and analysing data on cyber-attacks to inform their own decisions about cyber-security. Each could share their own information and coordinate with others on responses to international threats. CyberEx could identify weaknesses in the global system, flag up suspicious Internet traffic and malicious software and help countries and businesses develop technical standards for their cyber-security efforts.

It could seek to minimise common vulnerabilities that enable the theft of sensitive information and the distribution of spam through systems, and work closely with international and domestic agencies to prevent common system attacks. The platform could also provide a useful mechanism for stakeholders to work together on responses to collective concerns, such as privacy protection. By providing an accessible, open platform for information exchange, CyberEx could help governments, businesses and individuals to better understand common threat patterns, identify preventative measures and minimise future attacks.

But you are only as strong as your weakest link, so CyberEx would also need to help developing countries improve their cyber infrastructure. For example, Professor Anderson’s MoD study concluded that significant numbers of “stranded traveller” scams and Advance Fee Frauds originate in West Africa, particularly Nigeria.

We are at the start of conversations with interested parties on the potential for CyberEx, so the details of how and where the exchange would be hosted are still to be worked out. The report’s recommendation is a starting point but it is an important one. It could move us closer to using an exchange platform to counter common but high-risk cyber threats. It is a conversation that must continue if we are to meet the challenges posed by increased societal dependence on information infrastructures.

Ian Brown receives funding from the UK Research Councils (currently EPSRC), the European Commission, and BT. He is on the advisory councils of the Open Rights Group, Privacy International and the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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We can't fight cyber-crime by ourselves. (Photo: Getty)
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Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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