‘Protecting critical infrastructure from cyberattacks is indispensable’

7 Mar 2023

Dr Mubashir Husain Rehmani receiving the Science Foundation Ireland CONNECT Centre’s Education and Public Engagement (EPE) Award 2022. Image: Barry O'Sullivan

Internationally recognised computer scientist, Dr Mubashir Husain Rehmani, discusses his career journey and why his current research to protect electrical grids is vital to our increasingly ICT-dependant society.

Dr Mubashir Husain Rehmani is a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at Munster Technological University (MTU), Cork.

He received his PhD in computer science from the Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, in 2011.

His research focuses on wireless networks, blockchain, cognitive radio networks, smart grids and software-defined networks, and has been recognised internationally. He received Highly Cited Researcher awards from Clarivate in 2020, 2021 and 2022. His publications have featured in the top 1pc of citations in computer science in the Web of Science citation index.

In 2022, Rehmani won the Science Foundation Ireland CONNECT Centre’s Education and Public Engagement (EPE) Award for his research outreach work and for being a spokesperson for achieving a work-life balance in research careers.

‘When I supervise PhD students, I tell them to keep asking themselves what is the benefit of this research for society?’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

I started my career in industry and worked as a network engineer to manage and maintain the operations of a small computer network in an enterprise. While working there, I wanted to further enhance my understanding about computer networks and this led me to continue my higher education.

I was fortunate enough to secure a prestigious MSc leading to a PhD scholarship from the government of Pakistan, through which I started my career in research.

As part of my MSc, I worked on mobile sink (a UAV or simply a drone) trajectory for wireless sensor networks. In simple words, hundreds of sensors were deployed behind the enemy lines to capture different events, then a UAV needed to visit those sensors to collect the data, which can then be used in various applications.

My work focused on how to ensure a UAV spends less time behind enemy lines while collecting as much data as it can from sensors.

After completing my MSc, I started working on cognitive radio networks as part of my PhD.

When we use our laptop or mobile device to connect to a home router, we use wireless radio spectrum. When we talk with someone on a mobile phone, we use wireless radio spectrum. When we watch television or listen to the radio while driving, we use wireless radio spectrum.

Despite being a precious resource, this wireless radio spectrum has been underutilised. The goal of my research was to enhance spectrum utilisation.

My research experiences further increased my knowledge and desire to investigate more challenging research problems in computer science.

After my PhD, I joined COMSATS University, Pakistan and I worked on different cutting-edge research problems with my postgraduate students on topics such as blockchain, wireless networks, renewable energy and smart grid, just to name a few.

Before joining MTU, I worked as postdoctoral fellow at Telecommunications Software and Systems Group at the Waterford Institute of Technology. I focused on how to protect critical infrastructure from cyberattacks using advanced machine learning techniques.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Critical infrastructure (CIs) such as transportation infrastructure, electricity, hospitals, telecommunication networks, etc., are very important for our society. With the advancement in information and communication technologies (ICT) and dependency of these critical infrastructure on ICT, CIs are more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Remember the recent cyberattack on the Health Service Executive (HSE) led to the shutdown of IT systems nationwide. A recent cyberattack on MTU resulted in the suspension of classes for one week.

If an electrical grid is affected by a cyberattack, what will happen?

People cannot use banks for online transactions, internet service will be disrupted, operations will be cancelled in hospitals and patients’ lives will be in danger. It would be a disaster for society.

Thus, one of my recent research topics is the protection of this critical infrastructure. More precisely, I am focusing on protecting the electrical grid or smart grid.

‘My research will protect the functioning of core infrastructure of the electrical grid’

My research is important for society to function properly because we heavily rely on information and communication technologies, therefore, protecting core critical infrastructure from cyberattacks is indispensable.

In terms of foreseeable impact, my research will protect the functioning of core infrastructure of the electrical grid as well as the customers of the electrical grid (by protecting their privacy), which is one of the requirements of GDPR.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

It was one of my undergraduate professors who inspired me in a way that made me start really thinking about what I was studying. I asked myself why am I studying this subject? What is its use in daily life? How can it help shape humanity?

Now, when I supervise PhD students, I tell them to keep asking themselves what is the benefit of their research for society?

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

As a researcher, the biggest challenge I face is the lack of understanding of the importance of scientific research papers at a policy-making level.

There is a huge amount of pioneering scientific work that is published in top-quality scientific journals, but it does not get attention on social media or does not create an impact in a short span of time.

Rather than only considering the importance of commercialisable and trendy research areas, enough importance needs to be given to top-quality scientific research publications for evaluating researchers’ profiles, awarding funding and promotions, etc.

Policy makers should not only focus on foreseeable short-term ‘impact’, particularly for scientists and researchers working in the area of basic sciences, but instead consider the wider impact of high-value research on society and how it addresses current problems.

‘Engaging with the public can broaden research perspectives’

If support for basic research translates into policy, then it will not only impact the careers of young researchers but also lead to the overall advancement of science and research at institute level and at country level.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the way researchers engage with the public. In my opinion, it created more opportunities for scientists and researchers to engage with wider audiences.

Engaging with the public can broaden research perspectives, but also results in greater relevance, accountability and transparency, which is particularly important when research is conducted with public funds.

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