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Data Minding

A mathematician offers ideas on how to protect ourselves from hackers without making our digital devices impossibly complex to use

As hackers use increasingly sophisticated tools to break into computer systems and interconnected smart devices, a U of T professor is working to improve security while urging people to take digital privacy more seriously.

“The biggest threat is that technology is moving so fast, and convenience is what most people are concerned about,” says Kumar Murty, chair of U of T’s math department. “Security systems are designed to be used. And if they are inconvenient, people are not going to use them.”

Murty says even the strongest digital security encryption can be easily sidestepped if people carelessly display their passwords on sticky notes attached to their computer, or system designers inadvertently make it too easy for hackers to gain access.

He cites the example of a 2013 cyberattack on Target, the department store chain, in which a hacker was able to steal customer credit card information. It happened because the company’s information technology framework was porous, allowing someone with access to a less secure part of the network to get into other – more secure – parts without additional authentication.

It’s why the digital security research cluster at U of T’s planned new Centre for Applied Mathematics aims not only to create the next generation of data integrity and encryption systems, but also work with the public and private sectors on good security practices. Murty currently heads the GANITA lab at U of T, which has already developed math-based security technology that is being commercialized by startups PerfectCloud and Prata Technologies.

Digital security is one of six clusters initially planned for the centre, including financial risk management, big data, transport, imaging and fluids research.

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