Edit Magazine

The future of keeping data safe

How innovation is helping to upgrade safety and upskill people in our data-driven world.

data security illustration

By Corin Campbell

A wave of recent high-profile breaches, including the Facebook data scandal, alleged election hacking and cyberattacks targeting NHS patient records, have thrust the complex issue of data security and  ethical behaviour to the forefront of public consciousness. The time is right to use this awareness to embrace the conversation and take the opportunity to share expertise.

“ As recent events have shown, in the arena of data security and the ethical use of data, it is easy to lose public trust and difficult to regain it once lost. This highlights the vital importance of having robust systems in place to protect and govern the use of personal data,” says Professor Mark Parsons, Director of EPCC (the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre) a supercomputing hub at the University. “Building on its decades of world-class experience in data science, the University has an opportunity to lead the way in developing new ethical, regulatory, privacy and security standards for the management of data.”  

Leading expertise

The University has a wealth of expertise in data science. The School of Informatics is one of the world’s best, and was ranked first among UK universities in the 2014 REF assessment for computer science and informatics. EPCC has also gained an international reputation, with almost 30 years’ experience working at the leading edge of high-performance computing and data analytics. It is also home to ARCHER, the UK’s national supercomputing service.  

A number of projects in recent years have demonstrated the University’s expertise in driving innovations in various aspects of cyber security. For example, Professor Charles Raab in the School of Social and Political Science was a leading participant in PRISMS, a European project that conducted key large-scale survey work on public attitudes to privacy and security. The results were fed into evidence given to an inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.  

A series of projects by the Mobility and Security group in the School of Informatics has resulted in practical tools and one spin-out company, with the aim of providing ways for programmers to ensure their code is free from flaws that lead to security vulnerabilities. Elsewhere in Informatics, Professor Aggelos Kiayias is behind work to design electronic voting systems that are more secure and have greater privacy protection.  

Centre of excellence

In 2017, the University became the first institution in Scotland to win government recognition as an Academic Centre of Excellence for Cyber Security Research (ACE-CSR), one of only 14 in the UK. The ACE-CSR universities specialise in developing the latest cyber security techniques, and contribute to the UK’s increasing knowledge and capability in the field.  

With 22 academic leaders working across themes in cyber security, privacy and trust, the University is ideally placed to guide innovations in the field. Professor David Aspinall, Personal Chair in Software Safety and Security, and Director of the Edinburgh ACE-CSR, explains that ideas are being combined ranging from quantum security to privacy-enhanced data analytics for the Internet of Things: “Multidisciplinarity is a hallmark of the University’s approach to cyber security and it’s needed to solve this complex, global challenge which involves people and their behaviour as much as it involves technology. We are bringing together researchers from informatics, mathematics, engineering, law, sociology, politics and design to share understanding and find novel solutions together.”  

“Students are also becoming increasingly cyber-savvy,” says Professor Aspinall. One example is the SIGINT society, which has been particularly successful in fielding teams taking part in cyber security competitions, including in 2018 winning the top prize in the largest UK-wide contest between ACE-CSR universities. The University’s work in the area of digital security is set to expand through its involvement in a major government project to stimulate growth of the digital economy in Scotland.  

Data-driven innovation

As part of the £1.1 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, the University’s Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) programme aims to make a long-lasting contribution to the economic and social development of the region, establishing it as the data capital of Europe.  

The programme is expected to benefit a range of sectors – including health and social care, financial services, tourism and festivals – by delivering a raft of activities to support data-driven innovation, from research to entrepreneurship and company formation.  

It will build on the University’s proven track record of developing systems that enable research using personal data ethically while safeguarding its privacy and maintaining public trust and support. EPCC is responsible for building, supporting and hosting the infrastructure for the Scottish National Data Safe Haven, through which vital health research is carried out using NHS patient and other public data.  

At the heart of the DDI programme will be the World-Class Data Infrastructure, a state-of-the-art computing facility that will support all aspects of the programme, including managing sensitive data sets from across the region and around the world.  

All of this work will be underpinned by robust data governance, as Professor Parsons explains: “The University will harness its expertise in data security to find solutions to the ethical, privacy and regulatory challenges of managing data sets. In doing so, we aim to enable innovative research and development that involves the use of digital data, while ensuring that public trust and personal privacy is maintained.”  

Data upskilling

As well as developing sophisticated new ways of protecting personal information, other DDI initiatives will deliver data science training to address a digital skills shortage in Scotland and help all citizens in the region adapt to the data economy. Over 10 years, the programme will aim to provide 100,000 people with a formal certification that has a data science component.  

“This is about empowering people to become much more data literate, from PhD students to schoolchildren or people doing an online course. The aim is to grow the level of understanding about data among the general population. As well as helping to meet a key skills shortage, this will enable people to make better-informed decisions concerning their personal information and understand more about how their data is used,” says Professor Parsons.  

These developments come as European data privacy laws are being overhauled through the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is designed to ensure legislation to protect people’s personal data keeps pace with the latest technological advances.  

At a time when digital security continues to make global headlines, the University is helping to create the tools needed to safely and securely reap the benefits of living in a datadriven world.  

More information around the University

Edinburgh Local City Region Deal


Cyber Security & Privacy Research Network

Records Management information on GDPR

Corin Campbell graduated from the University of Glasgow in 2005 with a BSc in Biochemistry, and holds a MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement from the University of Edinburgh. He is currently a PR and Media Manager for the University of Edinburgh.   

Artwork by Edinburgh College of Art Illustration student Kristina Kapeljuh.