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Six Questions with SAS: Prof Bill Buchanan

Prof Bill Buchanan OBE, PhD, FBCS

PROFESSOR OF CRYPTOGRAPHY AT EDINBURGH NAPIER UNIVERSITY

 

1-How did you get started in this industry?

My father and his father were electricians so I initially followed that line. Working in a chemical factory in Grangemouth, I came across the magical devices that have changed our world: the transistor and integrated circuits. The factory had a new plant which was run by a computer, it then became obvious that this was the future. I knew I had to study these devices and when the CPU came along, I was hooked. 

I always remember going to my bank manager and asking for a loan to buy a Commodore Pet and him asking “Why do you want one?” I replied “I just do, they are the future and I need to learn all about them.” I didn’t get the loan, just wanting something to learn on wasn’t quite enough and the bank manager just thought I was buying a toy to play with.  But, I have continued to learn, I thank this industry for giving me the opportunity to continually learn new things.

 

2- What are the 3-key tech/ software tools that you depend on the most?

Our existing digital world is so flawed and is typically based on things that were created in the 20th Century. Our legal systems are also so behind in adopting a truly digital (and more trusted) world. I still find it unbelievable that my wet signature matters in any way in this modern world. We now need to push forward in rebuilding the Internet – which is the most amazing structure that we have ever created as a species. Our challenge is to now rebuild our existing world of trust into a digital space, we need to understand how we best look after the rights of every single citizen. For me, I find cryptography fascinating and I see beauty where others might just see maths scribbles. After saturating my knowledge in data communications and networks, I know that I teach and research in an area which is almost endless in my learning. Along with this, I’ve always loved coding and solving puzzles, so cryptography suits me perfectly. 

So, my Top 3 tech things that I couldn’t do without: 

-Microsoft Visual Studio. 

As an artist needs paper and a pencil, our art often involves the creation of software. Visual Studio is thus one application on my computer that I could not do without. I love building things from scratch with no idea where they will go. My online site – asecuritysite.com – has been my scratch pad on my learning and has all of my doodles on learning new things (that I hope someone, somewhere, will do something with). One of the greatest steps forward for me was when Microsoft released the Mac OSX version which then released me from the shackles of Microsoft Windows. 

-GitHub, Overleaf and Slack. 

Like it or not, our future is being built in GitHub and I now use it for teaching and research. I love open source methods and the ability to share. In our research team, we have transformed our research collaboration with Overleaf and have broken away from Microsoft Office tools. We can now collaborate and produce research papers which can provide a good foundation within the research community. Our world of email must end sometime soon. I receive thousands of emails every week and it is becoming unsustainable to manage them. With Slack, we can better manage our conversations, and sustain them, along with sparking new ideas. I now use GitHub, Overleaf and Slack in my teaching and I think it gives a supportive environment for every student. 

-Python, Golang and Node.js. 

I know these are three things, but I spend a good deal of my time moving between these three amazing programming languages. I grew up on C and C++ and know of the difficulties in getting things to run in a range of environments. Programming languages like Python are so well designed for a more open world and one typically built on Linux. My advice to any computer science student is to get into one of these languages and build some real things with them.

3- What is your favourite book or podcast?

1984 still sticks in my head, I think George Orwell predicted a world of fake news, political interference in our thoughts and a world of mass surveillance. For technology, Bruce Schneier’s book ‘Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World’ changed my world and I remember the actual moment that I could see the future more clearly. His coverage of public key encryption and how it could be used to build a new world has influenced me in my teaching and research work. To stand on the same stage as him last year, in my home city and university, will be one of the great highlights of my career. Finally, the words of the dearly missed Tim May and the Cyberpunks have provided a guiding light: “Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions.“ I am a strong believer in working together across the barriers that exist which separate us. Tim’s words have really resonated in how governments of the world try to restrict our movements and how they can take away our basic rights to freedom and privacy.

 

4- What is the most important thing you have learned in your career?

Never stop learning from others and passing on your knowledge to others. Be kind, considerate, and respectful of others and listen to those with ideas. Generally support David over Goliath. Create new things, and nurture them but know when it is best to stand aside and let others take over.

 

5-What advice would you give your younger self?

Have a dream and a vision and stick with it. Others will disagree with you but stick with it and learn along the way.  Only time will tell if you were right. There’s lots of people that will say “No!", so trust in those that let you get on with things without getting in the way but be there to help when required.

 

6- Who inspires you?

Lots of people. I love to see people evolve, grow and achieve their full potential. I especially love to see people build new things that would have never exist without them – I suppose that it's the basic measure of our lives. Jamie Graves, who led Zonefox before their acquisition by Forinet, is a role model for every budding technology entrepreneur. He took the seed of an idea and built a strong company in my home city. To build something from zero is something that we need to support as it is these seeds that will build our economic success for the future. Everyone who helped along the way for our spin-outs have been an inspiration and those who generally could not see their potential just inspired us a bit more to actually be successful.   


A guiding light is Bruce Schneier, he gives me belief that it is people that matter in this industry and not faceless companies such as Google and Facebook.  With him, comes the people who really built the core of cybersecurity: Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Whitfield Diffie. These crazy people disrupted the way we look at things and it is their work that is building the future.  There’s lots of people in my university who inspire me every day such as our Dean – Prof Sally Smith. In academia, you need the support of people like her who are also so positive and thankful to staff. Every organisation needs to know what it needs to do now and also needs to be growing the seeds of success for the future. Sally has managed that balance perfectly. 


It’s not just to people as my city inspires me. Edinburgh has helped in every single part of my life; its beauty, its people, its culture and its concentration on education inspires me every day. To live in the most beautiful country on the planet also helps a great deal. I must also say that my university has great values and provides a place for everyone to achieve their full potential. It is a university that has never stood in the way of anything that we have tried. To see our confident graduates changing the world is something that I will never tire of.

 


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