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GCHQ partners with academics in bid to better understand national security threats

25 January 2021

OVER THE next six months, experts from GCHQ (the intelligence, cyber and security agency) will support five academics from UK universities who’ll be conducting research into areas including counter-terrorism and cyber security. The research will add to the intelligence community’s existing knowledge, improve understandings and better equip that community to tackle some of the biggest national security challenges facing the UK.

The Research Fellowship Programme for National Resilience is part of the Government agency’s efforts to pioneer “a new kind of security” by harnessing the collective power of academia and industry to provide fresh perspectives on suitable and effective ways in which to address national security priorities. The academics involved could be called upon at some point in the future to help understand a technical challenge in their particular area of expertise.  

The five academics chosen to benefit from GCHQ’s support are Dr Tristan Caulfield, Dr Harmonie Toros, Dr Martín Barrère, Dr Charith Perera and Dr Peter Hatfield.

Influence campaigns     

Dr Tristan Caulfield of University College London is concentrating his attentions on ‘Measuring the Influence of Influence Campaigns’. His work will focus on measuring the impact of influence campaigns and how they affect different communities on the web.

The project will generate an Artificial Intelligence scoring system for posts using a method similar to rankings for chess players. It will then measure the way in which web communities’ behaviours change over time using this system, examining in particular concerted attempts by actors seeking to influence, mislead or otherwise misinform.

Foreign terrorist fighters

Dr Harmonie Toros from the University of Kent is looking at a ‘Gendered Narrative Analysis of Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Families’. Leading a team of national security academics, computer scientists and forensic linguists, Dr Toros will explore whether women engage in political violence for different reasons than men and whether these stories help to recruit new members to extremist groups.

Critical infrastructure systems

Dr Martín Barrère of Imperial College London has chosen ‘Trustworthy Critical Infrastructure Systems’ as his research topic. As a result, Barrère will explore the models and techniques able to analyse the security of critical cyber environments such as power plants, manufacturing facilities and water distribution networks.

Cyber attacks and Smart Buildings   

Dr Charith Perera from Cardiff University is focusing on ‘Detecting Cyber Attacks Using Secondary Internet of Things (IoT) Sensors in Smart Buildings’. In order to detect such sophisticated cyber attacks, Dr Perera will develop a secondary IoT sensor network in Smart Buildings, combining sensor data and state-of-the-art deep learning techniques in order to detect anomalies.

Extreme physics, extreme data

Last, but by no means least, Dr Peter Hatfield of the University of Oxford has selected to research the subject of ‘Extreme Physics, Extreme Data, Extreme Responsibility’. Artificial Intelligence can sometimes make biased predictions, or otherwise struggle to make predictions when confronted with unfamiliar data, presenting difficulties when it comes to how to combine Artificial Intelligence and traditional physics approach.

Gav Smith, GCHQ’S director general for technology, explained: “For more than 100 years, we’ve managed to remain one step ahead of our adversaries to help keep the country safe by harnessing ideas from a diverse mix of minds. Today, we face an increasing number threats in an ever-more complex world. On that basis, it’s vitally important that we continue to deepen our understanding of those threats as we pioneer a new kind security for the UK.”

Smith continued: “That’s precisely why we’re working with and investing in some of the most brilliant minds from academia to equip ourselves with cutting-edge research that will assist us to better tackle the biggest national security challenges facing us today and into the future.”

The Research Fellowship Programme for National Resilience is being run from GCHQ’s new city centre offices in Manchester. The organisation has run a number of business support schemes from this location, the most recent of which ran over the summer. The 12-week mentorship scheme, dubbed the ‘GCHQ Innovation Co-Lab’, works with companies to help them overcome technological or business challenges.

Applicants for the Research Fellowship Programme for National Resilience were judged on their research track record, the novelty of their approach, their vision and the potential impact of the proposals submitted.