Engineers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are working to protect South Africa’s private and public networks from illegal cyber activities by employing data mining and creating advanced algorithms.
Alex Lucouw, a CSIR information security engineer, leads the network and data security research group, tasked with making South Africa’s information and communication networks more secure.
The group focuses on data mining activities and finding patterns and anomalies in large datasets.
“For instance, we can create algorithms that automatically detect fraudulent entries in a database. These algorithms can potentially do a lot to address the country’s fraud and corruption challenges,” Lucouw said.
“One of the problem areas we are focusing on is identity theft.
“We are trying to develop an algorithm that looks at the data and tries to sort out legitimate entries from illegitimate ones, in order to raise a red flag when there is an illegal entry on a database containing personal information,” Lucouw explained.
Recently a team of engineers from his group developed an algorithm and presented the results at one of their conferences.
“Data was provided by a European country, which was successfully used to test the locally developed algorithm for accuracy. The algorithm was able to fish out fraudulent entries and the team was invited to present its results at a leading conference in that country.”
Currently, the research group is working on algorithms that can potentially be used to predict various forms of crime before it occurs, by looking at crime statistics and related data.
This project is being tackled by the same group which formed part of the CSIR team that successfully predicted the outcome of the 2014 national and provincial elections to within one percent.
While the internet helps to make life easier and people have access to services at the push of a button instead of standing in long queues, the security of private online data is an ongoing concern.
Inadequate network security may result in compromised confidentiality, integrity and availability of valuable, private data due to unauthorised access.
The CSIR has capabilities in offensive security, defensive security and secure software development and intends making a difference in protecting South Africa’s networks, infrastructure and sensitive information.
“If a client wants to test their network to identify security weaknesses, we can perform a penetration test by attacking the network and reporting the weakness on the system,” Lucouw said.
On the defensive side, CSIR information security engineers developed a Network Intrusion Detection System which alerts network administrators when an intrusion is detected.
According to Lucouw, there is a need to empower the South African government to be smart buyers of secure technologies resistant to exploitation by hackers.
The country’s research efforts in information security are often stifled by a critical shortage of skills.
“A skills shortage in cyber security is making our country vulnerable and as a result we are still behind the international information security learning curve.”
Lucouw said it remains a priority to interest as many students as possible in cyber security to ensure the country’s data and network security will continue to improve.