How governments can use digital twins for cybersecurity

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Marcus Tan Cheng Lin, Head of Cybersecurity Department, Institute for Infocomm Research (I²R), A*STAR, Singapore.

The true test of something is said to be when ‘the rubber meets the road’. Practical testing, against realistic challenges, is where vulnerabilities appear. But when this isn’t feasible for the original product, a digital twin ensures testing can go ahead.

Digital twin systems are now used to help build cyber defenses. The internet has brought about the challenges of security threats and fake news. It is the responsibility of the government to be a force for good on the internet, acting as a protective figure for citizens.

Marcus Tan Cheng Lin, Head of Cybersecurity Department, Institute for Infocomm Research at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore shares how organisations combat cyberthreats with digital twin systems.

Ramping up cyber defenses

The Colonial Pipeline, which supplies gasoline to half of the USA’s east coast, was infected with ransomware, reported Vox. There were large-scale shutdowns of the service, causing panic among citizens.

Essential services are often the target of attacks, as they cause the most disruption. These systems provide essential services such as energy, water, transport and more. A hacking incident could have a “debilitating effect” on these services, explains Tan.

He suggests a training technique called “red teaming”. This is when a group is created within an organisation to mimic the behaviour of hackers and work against the organisation’s own security system to test for vulnerabilities.

A digital twin would be the best place for running such tests. Governments would be able to mimic hacking attempts without disrupting essential services, explains Tan.

AI can also make security monitoring more efficient, he shares. Security operations centres are struggling with a “tremendous amount of security alerts”. AI would help sieve through the suspicious incidents and identify the genuine threat which should be prioritised, he explains.

Blockchain is a tool that can protect online transactions, highlights Tan. The system guarantees that genuine transactions are not tampered with by hackers. Blockchain is perfect for internet dealings as it “is used to create trust in an untrusting environment”, he states.

Fighting fake news 

Fake news has become an issue of concern in the ASEAN region. Last year Indonesia set up a ‘War Room’ in a targeted campaign to combat misinformation, Minister of Communications and Information Technology Johnny Plate told GovInsider. The country saw political falsehoods spread online, causing riots and disruptions to racial harmony.

“Falsehood flies, while the truth comes limping after it,” says Tan, quoting author Jonathan Swift. The internet and personal messaging has made the spreading of fake news “easier and with a more devastating impact”, Tan states.

A*STAR is working on an engine that detects fake news. Tech giants such as Google are using AI to understand human language, identifying misinformation on its platform, wrote The Straits Times.

Adaptation is crucial to keep misinformation at bay, Tan notes. Much like how the filter on your email learns how to detect spam, the creators of spam emails learn how to avoid that detection. The same applies to the world of misinformation, Forbes explains.

Training the next generation of cyber defenders

Image by A*STAR

“There is no better time than now for undergraduates to seriously consider a career in cybersecurity,” says Tan. Training programmes are being offered to bring more people into the industry.

Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) runs a programme that encourages students to roleplay as hackers, setting up an isolated network system to practice cyberdefense and attack. Estonia has created a cyber diplomacy training programme, and plans to make it available globally, its Ambassador-at-Large for Cyber Security, Heli Tiirmaa-Klaar, told GovInsider.

Aside from their research, the A*STAR team mentors PhD students and interns interested in cybersecurity. It offers a Computing and Information Science scholarship that allows top talent to pursue a PhD in the field, says Tan.

Financial incentives and opportunities for career progression are two ways to make careers in cybersecurity more attractive, he emphasises.

Governments face increasing pressures to keep citizens safe. As threats go online, cybersecurity teams can shift defence testing to the virtual space as well.