Swansea University
  • Swansea, Wales, UK, United Kingdom

Understanding and Responding to Cyber Threats

10th Nov, 2021
The Challenge

Cyberspace is a source of many benefits and opportunities. But its affordances are also exploited by malevolent actors. In this changing environment, it is essential to improve our understanding of emerging threats and of how cyberspace has caused other types of threat to evolve. It is also vital that responses to these threats are not only effective, but also proportionate and respect human rights and fundamental values.

The Method

The Cyber Threats Research Centre (CYTREC) explores a range of online threats, from terrorism, cyberwarfare and cyberespionage to cybercrime, online child sexual exploitation and abuse and other online harms. CYTREC is an interdisciplinary centre, with experts from a range of disciplinary backgrounds including law, criminology, political science, anthropology, linguistics and computer science. Its members work across disciplinary divides to advance understanding of a diversity of cyber threats, assess the threat they pose and develop proposals for policy and practice.

CYTREC is also collaborative, engaging with key stakeholders at all stages of the research process: from co-creating projects to ask the research questions that matter, to sharing findings and producing policy recommendations. CYTREC’s partners include: RUSI, Tech Against Terrorism and the Marie Collins Foundation. Its work has been presented around the world – including to the UK Home Office, US State Department, Europol, at NATO Advanced Training Courses and the British and Edinburgh International Science Festivals – and it regularly hosts multi-stakeholder events, including the biennial Terrorism and Social Media (TASM) Conference.

Examples of CYTREC’s work include:
  • Studying the tactics used by Islamic State to disseminate its online magazines via Twitter;
  • Analysing the strategic mobilisation of topical news events in far-right groups’ online propaganda and their systematic denigration of immigrants and Muslims;
  • Examining the extent to which personalization algorithms place further extremist content in front of consumers of such material;
  • Analysing mis/dis and mal-information into the body politic and social discourse;
  • Analysing the extent and impact of cybercrime victimisation on individuals, particularly those who are vulnerable and/or repeat victims;
  • Communicative profiling of online child sexual offenders, specifically those who groom children for sex online; and,
  • Conducting digital forensic investigations of computer and cybercrime, including the acquisition, preservation and analysis of digital evidence in a forensically sound manner.
The Impact CYTREC’s work has been used:

  • For awareness-raising and training sessions for law enforcement;
  • By the tech industry to identify platforms being exploited by terrorists and to remove terrorist content;
  • To create resources for teachers and parents to increase resilience against online radicalisation;
  • To develop online grooming detection software and digital resources for upskilling professionals in child safeguarding roles about how online grooming works and can be prevented; and,
  • To inform the development of new legislation and law reform.
Stay up-to-date with CYTREC's research by following its director, Prof. Stuart Macdonald, on ResearchGate.


Find out more at our Terrorism and Social Media Conference on 28-29 June 2022 (https://www.tasmconf.com/) and stay up-to-date with CYTREC's research by following its director, Prof. Stuart Macdonald, on ResearchGate
Posted 10th Nov, 2021
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29th Mar, 2022

SAIL Databank is making population-scaled data research possible

The Challenge
Historically, healthcare and administrative data have existed in disparate siloes without the necessary linkage infrastructure to generate population level intelligence. A lack of uniformity and consistency of data standards across this landscape has only added to the inherent complexities.
The challenge for our SAIL Databank was how do you safely acquire vast amounts of data, in a safe and secure way, that robustly preserves the privacy of those individuals represented in the data?
The other major challenge was how do you then restrict access to only legitimate researchers and provide an advanced technology platform that allows authorised, remote users to make the most of the data for society’s benefit?
The final test was how do you achieve all that whilst maintaining stakeholder confidence and, crucially, public trust?
The Method
Since its inception, the SAIL Databank has benefitted greatly from a partnership with the NHS Wales’ Digital Health and Care Wales (DHCW) with core funding from Health and Care Research Wales. DHCW provides essential support with data transfer, and expertise to develop a separation principle for data anonymisation.
The SAIL Databank has developed a sophisticated suite of information security measures incorporating physical, technical and procedural controls. These features contribute to Digital Economy Act (DEA) 2017 accreditation from the UK Statistics Authority and ISO27001 certification. This means that SAIL Databank meets the strictest international standards.
An independent Information Governance Review Panel (IGRP) was established to review proposals to work with the data. The panel includes representatives of professional and regulatory bodies and the public. If research is approved by the IGRP, users are granted access to the high-powered Secure eResearch Platform (SeRP). SeRP allows data owners and researchers to store, access, share, analyse and link data, at scale, in a governed environment whilst always maintaining full control of the data.
Finally, to build public trust in our management of public data we established the Consumer Panel – an active panel comprising members of the public with a variety of interest areas who advise and steer all our data-intensive research projects.
The Impact
The SAIL Databank’s development over the last 15 years has led to a vast range of potential and achieved impacts. As one of the best characterised population databanks found anywhere in the world, the SAIL Databank were also well positioned to rapidly support COVID-19 research and response efforts. A short selection of our impact is listed below…
• University helping to improve medicine safety in early motherhood ( https://www.swansea.ac.uk/press-office/news-events/news/2022/02/university-helping-to-improve-medicine-safety-in-early-motherhood.php)
• SAIL Databank reveals no cases of rare form of clotting in COVID19 vaccinated population of Wales (https://www.swansea.ac.uk/press-office/news-events/news/2021/03/sail-databank-reveals-no-cases-of-rare-form-of-clotting-in-covid19-vaccinated-population-of-wales.php )
• Welsh super database and technology platform play major role in new international Covid-19 research collaboration (https://www.swansea.ac.uk/press-office/news-events/news/2020/07/welsh-super-database-and-technology-platform-play-major-role-in-new-international-covid-19-research-collaboration.php )
• SAIL Databank to support UK-REACH: a new UK study launched to investigate COVID-19 risks for BAME healthcare staff (https://popdatasci.swan.ac.uk/sail-databank-to-support-uk-reach-a-new-uk-study-launched-to-investigate-covid-19-risks-for-bame-healthcare-staff/ )
• SAIL Databank reveals link between household mental ill-health and developmental disorders in children (https://popdatasci.swan.ac.uk/sail-databank-reveals-link-between-household-mental-ill-health-and-developmental-disorders-in-children/ )
23rd Mar, 2022

Responding to Victimisation in a Digital World

The Challenge
Digital technology is embedded into daily life and cannot be meaningfully separated from ‘real’ world experiences, including those of crime victims. Official statistics show the volume and impact of computer crimes and online fraud. Additionally, tech now plays an increasing role in gender-based violence and hate crime. As such, crimes are increasingly ‘hybrid’, taking place both online and offline. However, the victim response to online harms has been shown to be inconsistent, particularly with respect to identifying vulnerable victims and addressing repeat victimisation. In parallel, victim support services vary widely across geographical areas and the extent to which they are equipped to respond to the role of digital tech is ill understood.
The Method
We have worked with large datasets of police recorded crime and used a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods to identify patterns of repeat victimisation and better understand victim vulnerability. With funded support from the Morgan Advanced Studies Institute (MASI) researchers at the Cyber Threats Research Centre (CYTREC) and Swansea University’s Computational Foundry are currently working in partnership with South Wales Police (SWP) and the Swansea Council for Voluntary Service (SCVS) to (1) explore the extent to which victim services are adequate in a digital world, and (2) develop a ‘Cyber Clinic’ prototype, offering a blend of face-to-face and digital support, to both increase and research individuals’ resilience to and post-victimisation.
The Impact
CYTREC’s previous work on victimisation has been used:
To inform law enforcement fraud threat assessments in the Southern Wales region;
For awareness-raising and training sessions for law enforcement and wider stakeholders including within the cybersecurity industry and the charity sector;
To develop learning materials for practitioners and researchers to develop their knowledge of the legal and ethical implications of cybercrime research; and
To inform the development of new legislation and law reform.
Find out more at our Terrorism and Social Media Conference on 28-29 June 2022 and stay up-to-date by following Dr Sara Correia on ResearchGate
23rd Mar, 2022

Tackling Terrorists' Online Activities

The Challenge
Terrorist groups use the internet for a variety of purposes, from disseminating propaganda and recruitment to fund-raising and psychological warfare. Developing responses that are effective and maintain respect for human rights and basic values is one of today’s most pressing challenges.
The Method
Researchers from the Cyber Threats Research Centre (CYTREC) work across disciplinary divides to advance understanding of terrorists’ online activities, assess the threat they pose and develop proposals for policy and practice.
The Impact
CYTREC emphasises the importance of collaboration with front-line practitioners, policymakers and industry. Its work has been used by social media companies to understand how terrorists exploit their platforms, in the training of law enforcement and to inform national and international law and policy.
Find out more at our Terrorism and Social Media Conference on 28-29 June 2022 and stay up-to-date by following Professor Stuart Macdonald on ResearchGate.
15th Mar, 2022

Using cutting edge technology to track animal movement

The Challenge
Anyone who has travelled on a plane will realise how important the weather is for flight: Wind and turbulence affect the routes that planes take, the total flight time and the amount of fuel needed. What the air is doing is every bit as important for birds in flight, whether they are on their daily commute, their annual migration or choosing where to nest. But it can be challenging to unravel these relationships as air is both invisible and almost always on the move.
The Method
We use a range of techniques to quantify animal movement, second by second, to understand how much it costs, and how animals respond to our changing world.
New 20T, tilting wind tunnel to study bird flight
We attach miniature, high-frequency data-loggers to birds to record the details of their wingbeats in the wind tunnel and relate that to the energy that their flight requires. We use the same loggers on birds flying in the wild to quantify how the wind and turbulence affects their flight costs and decisions.
The wind tunnel is a new facility designed to enable collaborative research on animal flight between biologists and engineers. It has a large test area where birds fly (1.8 m wide by 1.5 m high by 2.2 m long). Accelerating air through such a large volume requires a big structure to house the fans, reduce fan noise and minimise the turbulence of the airflow. The tunnel itself also tilts, enabling the study of climbing and gliding flight. The end result is a tunnel > 17 m long and weighing > 20T. All this to improve our understanding of birds that weigh about the same as a can of beans.
Visualising the Invisible
Our team used computational fluid dynamics models, borrowed from engineering, to visualise and map what the air is doing over fine scales and estimate the wind and turbulence experienced by seabirds close to their nesting cliffs.
When it comes to choosing where to nest, it turns out that not all cliffs are equal. The exposure to the prevailing wind can predict where common guillemots breed. This type of modelling could be important for management decisions, particularly where colonies have been lost, potentially allowing people to predict which areas species may return to/ should be encouraged back to. This is pertinent for the many seabirds that have experienced dramatic population declines in the last century.
Tag development in the Swansea Lab for Animal Movement
The Swansea Laboratory for Animal Movement, SLAM, uses individual-based approaches to examine how, why, and where animals move. We specialise in novel animal tagging techniques, and continue to develop the sensors deployed on animals, the best methods of attaching them, as well as metrics to inform ecologists about animal motion and its energetic costs (notably through Dynamic Body Acceleration).
This gives us new eyes on animals, whether they be condors soaring hundreds of metres above the Andes, lions tracking the borders of a reserve, or penguins twisting and turning in pursuit of prey underwater.
The Impact
The teams findings on Andean condors, which were reported in a recent paper (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1907360117) showed just how adept these birds are at finding rising air, spending just 1% of their flight time flapping. They recorded a flight from one bird that travelled over 100 miles without a single wingbeat.
Further collaborative work on how gulls soar above buildings could help when it comes to planning flight paths for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones in urban landscapes. In a similar way to birds, these are affected by gusts and turbulence, far more than larger aircraft. Flying at low altitudes in close proximity to terrain and buildings is challenging, as flight control systems have not been developed to cope with complex urban environments: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2015.0394
Understanding where seabirds nest could also be important for management decisions, allowing people to predict which areas species may return to. This is pertinent for the many species that have experienced dramatic population declines in the last century: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ecog.05733?af=R