You Think Your Computer Is Safe?Published: October 15, 2013
There’s a new defender of computer security on campus and his name is Mehrdad Aliasgari.
The new member of the Computer Engineering and Computer Science Department has a lifelong interest in protecting data and a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame to back up that interest.
Aliasgari studies secure computation and outsourcing of private information such as biometric data. Biometrics is the identification of a person by their unique characteristics such as DNA, fingerprints, eye retinas, irises, voice and facial patterns and hand measurements.
While the idea of an unforgettable password printed on our fingers may seem appealing, unique physical signatures possess their own threats. “Once you lose your biometric data, you can never change them. You can never change your iris imprint. You can never change your fingerprints. You can never change your DNA,” he said. “There has to be a high level of security when dealing with such data.”
The problem at the beginning of biometric research was the expense. “Scanners were costly,” Aliasgari recalled, “but now, thanks to the advance of technology, biometrics have become cheaper and cheaper. Because biometrics are always with us, we never forget them, as opposed to conventional passwords. There are many advantages to biometrics but there are drawbacks, too. Once your biometric signature is stolen, it is stolen forever. If an unauthorized person sees your picture, they know your gender and ethnicity and age. And if they have your DNA, they know pretty much everything about you. There is information inside biometrics that you want to protect.”
Aliasgari recalls the words of one of his relatives who remains unconvinced that computer security is something he ought to worry about. “He says, `Let them have my information! Who cares? I’m not doing anything.’ But the fact is, if people do not protect their security, one way or the other, they will find themselves in awkward situations,” Aliasgari explained. “You’re going to end up feeling violated if you put your information outside where other people can access it. Teachers may not be happy about their students knowing everything about them including every move their families make. That’s why we all need to protect our data. I understand it can be troublesome. Getting used to using computer systems safely can be difficult, boring and time-consuming but it is worth it.”
It’s never too late to study computer security. “A simple password of 1, 2, 3 and 4 is not enough. Is it really wise to use just one password for everything? I recommend everyone start learning about computer security and what tools are available,” he said.
If a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, so can a lot. “Now that my research has taught me the critical importance of computer security, I can’t trust anybody,” Aliasgari laughed. “I ask myself, what could go wrong? How a program could be misused? How could things be manipulated? I always see the dark side. For instance if you are using your iPhone, what could Apple do with your data? They always will know this person was doing this thing in that place. I try to play the role of the bad guy. What are the risks that come with computer services? These risks are run more and more in real life. Our computers become more and more integrated into our lives every year. When data falls into the hands of unauthorized people, the consequences can be costly.”
Aliasgari feels there is a growing awareness of computer security. “In the past, I had to argue that we all ought to be concerned about security and what I heard was, `Oh, that makes things too complicated. If it’s not user friendly, forget about it,’” he said. “But when those same people are hacked, we security people are there to say we told them so. People are listening now.”
Aliasgari sees no end to his security consciousness. “I’m very dedicated to computer security because that’s where my passion is,” he said. “I began my education studying computer security and maybe I’ll die studying computer security because it is a topic that never stops. There’s no end to it. There are always bad people and new threats. But at the same time, computer users are becoming smarter and smarter.”
The concern about security is thousands of years old and Aliasgari doesn’t see it going away any time soon. “One side always will want their system to be more complicated so it can combat the other side. But the other side isn’t going to just sit around. They will come up with their own counter measures,” he said.
“There was a time when hacking demanded a certain expertise,” he added. “Now 16-year-olds working out of their basements can hack not only your computer but the Pentagon or the government of China. The interest in computer security is only growing. What that means is the need for security to defend against an army of hackers. What could once be controlled is now growing. The battle becomes more and more interesting.”