“Switzerland can and should develop a neutral virtual space”

© 2016 EPFL / Alain Herzog

© 2016 EPFL / Alain Herzog

The first Swiss Cyber Risk Research Conference, being held today at EPFL, brings together Swiss and international IT security specialists. EPFL researcher Bryan Ford explains the challenges they face.

The cyber security conference taking place today at EPFL’s Swiss Tech Convention Center is a forum for experts to discuss cutting-edge research in this field. And this is a field where Switzerland could figure prominently in the coming years. “Long known for its neutral status among nations, Switzerland has a golden opportunity to put the same concept to work in virtual space,” said Bryan Ford, an EPFL professor who specializes in decentralized systems, internet security and anonymity, and is also head of the AXA research program.

In the post-Snowden digital age, mutual mistrust among the world’s major powers is growing. “Efforts by some countries, including the USA, to have backdoors installed in programs automatically raises suspicions among other nations,” said Ford. The frequency and impact of cyber attacks are increasing – Swiss technology company RUAG is a recent victim – and the USA, Russia and China are engaged in a virtual war combining espionage and sabotage. It is no surprise that governments, businesses and the scientific world recognize the need to protect their sensitive data. This neutral virtual space could thus be applied not only to intergovernmental and international arbitration, but also to the commercial and industrial world, as well as any type of exchanges where mutually distrustful parties must find a means and venue to cooperate.

Common ground for exchange and negotiation

Data-protection measures are being enhanced, but the need to share data across borders remains a challenge. “Encrypted data can be exchanged through a cloud, but for that you have to trust the service provider in Silicon Valley. Switzerland, on the other hand, has built a track record in creating common ground for exchange and negotiation, and could use this to play a leading role in this field,” said Ford. He believes that “Switzerland can and should develop a neutral virtual space.” This is a technological niche that would give the country a clear edge over other countries providing the same service.

This neutral space could be developed through distributed databases called blockchains, which are already being aggressively developed in the field of finance. “Just like with the virtual currency Bitcoin, all transactions are public and verifiable by all participants,” said Ford. Cryptographic technologies that allow transparent validation and processing of data that remains encrypted (unlike Bitcoin) already exist. Several EPFL and ETHZ labs are hard at work developing safer decentralized systems and seeking to improve the methods used for encrypting data, detecting attacks and safely sharing biometric data.

Progress in this field will be crucial in the coming years, with the rise of the Internet of Things and the advent of self-driving cars. “The security risks raised by these phenomena will be a real challenge for society in the next five years,” said Ford.

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The Swiss Cyber Research Initiative

One of the goals of the conference is to launch the Swiss Cyber Research Initiative, aimed at fostering a community of experts in this field in Switzerland. “This initiative was developed by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation in partnership with other federal entities,” said Karl Aberer, vice president of EPFL and the conference co-organizer. “By bringing together industry, research and government experts, we can enhance the level of collaboration in the field of IT security in Switzerland.”


Author: Sarah Bourquenoud
Source: EPFL