UP grad represents PH in int'l cyber competition

By Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN News Europe Bureau

Posted at Jun 26 2014 02:59 PM | Updated as of Jun 26 2014 10:59 PM

Adelen Victoria Festin with a poster of her entry Communect

STOCKHOLM - Computer science graduate Adelen Victoria Festin waived the Philippine flag at the international finals of a cyber competition held in Sweden this week, with a simple idea that could potentially make a huge impact on communities in disaster zones.

Twelve contestants from around the world made it to the global finals held at the Hilton Slussen Hotel in central Stockholm, each of them securing their place after finishing in the top three from their respective regional finals in Russia, Europe, America and Asia.

Hosted by IT security solutions provider Kaspersky Lab, this year’s competition was among the biggest so far in its seven-year history, attracting over 2,000 entry submissions from 50 countries, and narrowing it down to 400 participants worldwide.

Festin, who recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, was the sole representative of the Philippines at this year’s finals.

"It's a great honor to be here and represent the Philippines and bring the flag to the world finals," she told ABS-CBN Europe at the event.

Festin’s entry, Communect, is an alternative communications system based on a secure OpenBTS (Open Base Transceiver Station), an open source software allowing access points for mobile phones.

In the real world, this could be used as a mobile phone service provider in areas where mainstream network signals are weak, congested, or non-existent, from remote regions to far away islands.

"Communect provides an alternative communication system that is very low cost and easy to deploy. And it can be set up any time," explained Festin, a 20-year-old who is originally from Bulacan.

Communect works on the basis of using an OpenBTS device as a base for a mobile network while connected to a computer via USB, consequently providing a secure communications service to mobile phones in local communities.

It is a relatively simple idea that could potentially have benefits for a vast swathe of Filipino communities across the country, particularly for people working in remote areas, from medical teams and charity workers who need to stay in touch, to farmers and fishermen who need up-to-date information about the weather and other variables.

More significantly, Festin and her team from UP developed the alternative communication system after witnessing the devastation of typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in November 2013, when they realized their college research could have a useful application in society.

"That’s when we realized that there are a lot of applications that Communect could be useful. And that’s where we actually coined the word Communect, because we realized it could be really helpful for the community," Festin recalled.

Communect has the potential to provide crucial communication networks in times of disasters not only in the Philippines but in other parts of the world, when calamities like typhoons and earthquakes ruin communications infrastructure that make it almost impossible to maintain mobile connection when it is needed most in coordinating aid, search and rescue.

The pressure was on for Festin from the very start of the competition, which previously saw significant successes from Filipino delegates in the past, including Joshua Arvin Lat who bagged first prize in the 2012 global finals, and Ivan Baguio who was awarded Best Presenter in 2013.

For Festin, however, the achievements of these young Filipinos only prove the potential of the Philippines to cater for the demands of the cyber security sector.

"Everything starts with awareness. The Philippines is catching up in the cyber security scene, and it is not very far from today that we will be fully aware and globally competitive in the area of cyber security," she said.

The 12 finalists from 8 countries at the Cyber Security for the Next Generation conference

At this year’s conference, there was tough competition between 12 candidates from countries like Russia, United States, Italy, United Kingdom and China.

Each finalist submitted a research paper proposing solutions to technology and security issues, which this year included ways to trap cyber criminals online, encrypting private messages sent through computer devices, creating a new security method based on specific hand gestures, and the use of journalism and education to raise awareness of the politics and developments in cyber security.

The jury has set five challenges at the global finals, from multimedia presentations on video and print, to a terrifying elevator pitch explaining the relevant concept in just three minutes.

In the end, Festin failed to secure prizes from any of the challenges, which this year went to Maurizio Abba from Italy (Best Elevator Pitch), David Korczynski from the UK (Best Video Presentation), and Artem Schumilov from Russia (Best Poster Presentation).

Despite the results, however, Festin emerged as one of the better speakers throughout the competition, delivering a confident and clear presentation in front of a knowing crowd of cyber security experts, journalists, and fellow students.

Dutch ICT (information and communications technology) expert and university professor Robert Kooij, who is currently associated with TNO and Delft University of Technology, was among this year’s jury.

"The students are wonderful," he said. "What I like very much is that the finalists are from very different disciplines. I think it’s important that we have different types of people working on solutions for cyber security. You see people with technological background, and we also hear things about human factors like how to change people’s behavior on security."

Now in its 7th year, the conference dubbed as ‘Cyber Security for the Next Generation’ is designed to attract computer science and technology professionals into the security sector, which is currently in need of more talent and ideas.

“We have really scary numbers, because the world is really facing a dire shortage of cyber security professionals.” said Natasha Obelets, Deputy Head of Education Initiatives at Kaspersky Lab.

She added that “by organizing such programs just like today’s conference, we try to address this issue because the government and industry need this new cyber generation. We need to make it visible to the world that such a career is lucrative, well paid, and a really interesting career path to explore.”

The conference also aims to encourage exchanges and discussions among all delegates, providing talks, Q&As, and roundtable discussions on key issues of the day.

Among the topics that emerged this year were hacking, social media governance, targeted cyber attacks, unsecured behavior from users and IT professionals, vulnerabilities from viruses, and cyber ethics.

Special guests speakers included Beverly Magda from Georgetown University in the US, George Margarov from the Sate Engineering University of Armenia, Daniel Tse from City University of Hong Kong, and David Jacoby from Kaspersky Lab.

“We try to promote cyber education. We organize different educational programs worldwide, and to inspire students and promote knowledge exchange,” Obelets said.

She added: “This is a place where students can actually present their ideas and see how these ideas are perceived by renowned, famous experts in the field. So this is a nice place for collaboration and networking. You need to show the public what cyber security is.”

Kaspersky Lab's 2014 Cyber Security for the Next Generation conference took place in Stockholm, Sweden on June 23-24.

Delegates at the conference were given a glimpse of Swedish culture, from city tours to an ice carving workshop