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Kiwi code-cracker heads to Oxford to hone her craft

By Alex Crossan
Thu 25 May 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Erin Chapman loves a good password.

Probably because she’s a cryptography savant who's just secured a sought-after spot in a world-renowned cyber security programme at Oxford University.

The 25-year-old Chapman, of Auckland, just completed a masters in computing and information sciences at AUT University. She possesses a rare mind hard-wired to navigate complex algorithms in a way that even the most mathematically savvy out there would find difficult.

In the last few years, she's focused on cryptology - code breaking.

The field was romanticised recently by the film The Imitation Game, which detailed the work of  Alan Turing, the godfather of computer science.

But rather than trying to beat codes, Chapman loves creating them. Designing the kind of algorithms that protect us when we log into our online bank accounts is where her interest lies.

"I thought the whole thing was really fascinating," said Chapman of a cryptology course she took earlier in her computing studies at AUT.

When she asked her AUT lecturer, Dr Brian Cusack, about where to study next, he suggested Oxford, the second oldest and highly ranked ivy league school.

"They've got a really great cyber security programme there... but I thought it was a completely insane idea,” says Chapman.

She became one of 16 out of 100 applicants chosen for the course, and she says it helped that she finished her AUT thesis in half the required time.

"When I found out I'd got an interview, I spent the whole day grinning from ear to ear, and then when they told me I'd got in, I was really stoked," she said.

"I'd been working on my back-up plans and it was one of those things that was a really nice day dream.... and then it actually happened.

"It still doesn't seem quite real. I'm leaving in four months and still can't get my head around it,” she continued.

The first of her four years there will explore the wider picture of cyber security, from legislation and enforcement to business and technology.

"It's going to be really interesting to see it from all of those different angles, instead of just the computer science of it."

Ultimately, she'd love to become an academic specialising in the cryptography, rather than a code-maker in the private sector.

While major ransomware attacks like the WannaCry cryptoworm which this month infected more than 230,000 computers in 150 countries had increasingly put cyber security in the spotlight, Chapman said it was the global explosion in "big data" that would pose the big challenge to people similar to herself.

"The sheer scale of the data we are generating today means that we've got to look at the efficiency of the algorithms that protect it, and not just the strengths.

"Because the stronger you make the algorithm, the longer it's going to take, and you have to ask - how do we make this realistic, and what are we willing to sacrifice?"

She says the war against hackers will never be won, but it’s possible to at least stay a step ahead of them.

"Whatever we come up with, someone else is going to figure out a way around it, so it's up to us to keep coming up with better, stronger and faster encryption algorithms."

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