Protecting human rights organisations from cyber-attacks

| November 30, 2021

UNSW Sydney has signed a research agreement with Swiss technology company Neutrality to develop cyber network safeguards for organisations whose integrity and trust is essential in protecting people.

For human rights organisations operating in conflict zones, communication and computer systems security is crucial.

“This project aims at protecting communications of humanitarian and other non-government organisations from cyber-attacks, which often result in loss of lives,” said UNSW Trustworthy Systems leader and John Lions Chair, Scientia Professor Gernot Heiser.

“UNSW’s Trustworthy Systems group will work with Neutrality in the development of such secure communication, leveraging the mathematically proved security enforcement provided by our seL4 microkernel technology.”

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UNSW Trustworthy Systems leader, Scientia Professor Gernot Heiser.

The pioneering seL4 technology provides bullet-proof isolation between running computer programs, thus stopping an affected component from compromising others.

“We will utilise seL4 to isolate operating system services from each other, thus limiting the damage a compromised service can cause,” said Prof. Heiser.

“Specifically, the Trustworthy Systems team will provide the ‘virtual-machine monitor’ layer that enables running mutually-isolated Linux services on seL4.”

The need for this technology was highlighted by the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has seen hospitals attacked numerous times over the past decade – some facilitated by cyber-attacks.

Neutrality Co-CEO and Chief Technology Officer Stevens Le Blond said the organisation was looking forward to collaborating with UNSW to leverage their computer security technological know-how.

“Neutrality tackles highly technical challenges in partnership with strategic academic groups, including UNSW who, through centuries of combined research experience, have laid the foundations for our products,” said Le Blond.

“As the inventor of seL4, the first formally-verified microkernel, the Trustworthy Systems team at UNSW is one of the most impactful academic groups in systems security in the world and a key partner of Neutrality.”

Le Blond also noted how this world-leading academic research will make a real-world difference, to the benefit of humanity, with the technology attracting the interest of seven international purpose-driven organisations, including five recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

“To carry out their mission and mandate, these organisations must operate in hostile environments such as armed conflicts, where geopolitical tensions make their staff and beneficiaries potential targets for digital surveillance and threats.

“There can be life-or-death consequences for human rights defenders, humanitarian workers, and other courageous women and men delivering lifesaving missions and mandates in highly complex operating environments.”

Trustworthy Systems is a research group at the School of Computer Science and Engineering of UNSW Sydney.

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