Written by Suzanne Lazaroo.

Original Article 

As newly-appointed Research Chair in Critical Infrastructure under the University of Canberra-Cisco partnership, Professor Frank den Hartog will seek to fortify the cybersecurity scaffolding of the critical infrastructure throughout the country.

“Bolstering cybersecurity must begin with a consideration of the critical infrastructure that we depend on, and that we must defend,” he said.

“Everything from airports to telecommunications to our water supply – it’s all computerised now, after all. Everything has a chip in it.”

According to the annual Cyber Threat Report 2022-2023, the Australian Cyber Security Centre received over 94,000 reports of cybercrime over the financial year – up 23 per cent from the previous year.

And in addition to the increased frequency and cost of cyber attacks, the report highlighted that many Australian systems and networks were at risk because they were unpatched and vulnerabilities could be quickly exploited.

The most widespread understanding of a cyber attack is a data breach in which information is stolen, Professor den Hartog says – but that’s truly just scratching the surface.

“Cyber attacks can disable critical infrastructure – for instance, taking control of a nuclear power plant. It could be so much more immediately devastating than many people understand,” he said. “Some cyber attacks are extremely advanced and sophisticated, and can take place over months and years.”

Professor den Hartog says that Canberra is perfectly-positioned to take up the critical national gauntlet and become a cybersecurity hub, being at the intersection of government and industry.

“Many tech graduates from the local universities have remained in Canberra and started up very innovative and exciting companies that focus on solutions,” he said. “This is coupled with strong government and industry networks.”

Professor den Hartog has moved from UNSW Canberra to join the University’s Faculty of Science and Technology, as he assumes the inaugural appointment under the partnership.

Through this partnership, the University of Canberra is the newest member of the National Industry Innovation Network (NIIN), an initiative led by Cisco. Launched in 2020, the NIIN is a collaborative vehicle for digitally transforming industries and accelerating innovation for large-scale economic and societal impact.

As the inaugural Chair in Critical Infrastructure, Professor den Hartog joins Cisco’s established Research Chair program. Launched in 2015, this program has an outstanding track record in facilitating industry and academia collaborations, with Professorial roles held across Trusted Retail, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence, Transport and Artificial Intelligence, Digital Health and Advanced Networking.

“We welcome Professor den Hartog to the Cisco Research Chair community and look forward to the impact that will support Australia’s cybersecurity posture and contribution to securing our critical infrastructure. This is especially important, and in alignment to, the revised Security of Critical Infrastructure (SOCI) Act, which calls for the addition of more industries to be protected and recognised for their importance in ensuring our national security, and in support of the Australian Government’s Cyber Security Strategy,” said Mr Reg Johnson, Director of Strategic Industries and Education at Cisco.

Professor den Hartog has a PhD in physics from Leiden University, and an MSc from Eindhoven University of Technology, both in his original home country of The Netherlands.

He is widely-recognised as a pioneer in complex wireless network systems, and is a Senior Researcher with DoVes Research, where he provides consultancy work on telecommunications networks.

A former Senior Scientist at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research TNO, he has extensively managed large, multidisciplinary collaborations and served as Chair of the Technical Working Group of the worldwide Home Gateway Initiative (HGI) industry consortium.

“I have always been fascinated by all aspects of technology – from performance issues to security – the corresponding integration of this technology in our lives, its capacity for problem-solving and how it contributes to industry ecosystems,” Professor den Hartog said.

He spent over two decades in the European telecommunications industry, with a wealth of experience at the coalface affording him a rich and detailed perspective of how the tech scene has grown and changed.

“Technological advances have always brought issues and challenges with them, which the industry works to solve – when Wi-Fi first came on the market in 1999, it was unsecured, and look at how much it has improved since,” he said.

“Then the energy used became an issue, so we looked at how we could use telecommunications and networking to increase energy efficiency.”

Now, Professor den Hartog has turned his gaze to the present and future of cybersecurity. He says that while networking has traditionally worked with protocols – rule sets that govern how data is transmitted – it will change to be increasingly determined by Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which allow different applications to communicate.

“AI will also be critical to the protection of critical infrastructure,” he said.

In his quest to strengthen various aspects of cybersecurity in networking, education and information-sharing is key.

Citing Cisco’s preference to delivering integrated solutions, Professor den Hartog said that he would be focusing particularly on multidisciplinary projects under the partnership, and education would form a cornerstone of his approach.

“I feel we haven’t done enough to bring the wider public on a journey with us, as the tech industry itself has developed, and I see UC playing a big role in that community education,” he said.

“I have spoken to Cisco about bringing in professionals within their ecosystem to further strengthen our teaching – or even to have people from Cisco come here to pursue PhDs, which will further build up the knowledge bank.

“There is still a tendency in the cybersecurity community to think that we are smarter than others. This leads to a lot of victim-blaming, and that is neither right nor constructive. We need more knowledge-sharing and transparency in general – and that will be a valuable starting point to build a secure cyber ecosystem for all.”

Professor den Hartog is optimistic about the future of cybersecurity, if this educational program of work is put in place.

“I see how things are changing – my son is in Year 11, and he is interested in and learning about cybersecurity. There is still a knowledge gap, but we can work to close it – and we have reached the point in history where we must,” he said.

Professor den Hartog will be supervising Higher Degree by Research students at the University, as they work on critical solutions that will be applicable in five to 10 years.

“I always want to make a positive difference for society and for students, and to mentor them to make an impact in turn – I am truly looking forward to it.”

Innovation Central Canberra, part of the University of Canberra-Cisco partnership, is a space for collaboration and connection between UC, Cisco and industry partners and will provide the backdrop for research, testing and development under Professor Hartog’s purview.

Executive Dean of the University’s Faculty of Science and Technology, Professor Janine Deakin is looking forward to the positive impact Professor den Hartog’s appointment will have on cybersecurity research for industry, and the opportunities it provides for students.

“Addressing the cybersecurity skills shortage is a challenge we have to work on together with industry and government – the partnership with Cisco facilitates this, as we work collaboratively to tackle some of the cybersecurity challenges we face as a country,” said Professor Deakin.