UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — College of Information Sciences and Technology alumnus Alejandro Cuevas was part of a team of researchers that recently received a Distinguished Paper Award at the 39th Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Symposium on Security and Privacy. The symposium, held May 21-24 in San Francisco, is one of the world’s leading computer security conferences.
A Schreyer Honors Scholar who graduated in 2018 with a degree in security and risk analysis, Cuevas was second author on the team’s paper, “On Enforcing the Digital Immunity of a Large Humanitarian Organization.” He assisted with the study while working as a research assistant at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.
In the paper, the team interviewed employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to understand how humanitarian organizations defend against digital security threats to maintain their mission of providing supplies, care and training to those affected by conflict and natural disasters.
"We observed a variety of unique needs and challenges from a computer security and privacy perspective," said Cuevas. "This study excels at exploring, observing and contextualizing these challenges."
As organizations like the ICRC shift toward using more digital tools to collect, process and share data related to their work, they become more vulnerable to information security threats from criminals and political opponents who want to leverage this sensitive data.
Among their findings, the researchers provided an overview of how economic, legal, political and governmental factors affect humanitarian organizations' ability to protect from these threats. They also highlight how technology can serve as an additional safeguard by complementing existing laws.
"Where legislation is bypassed, technology can serve as another barrier," he explained.
While at EPFL, Cuevas worked with Stevens Le Blond in the Decentralized and Distributed Systems Lab. With Le Blond leading the project, the team’s paper was accepted to the IEEE Symposium, which only accepts roughly 10 to 13 percent of all submissions.
Given the exclusivity of the symposium, Cuevas was admittedly nervous at first, but he looked forward to speaking with researchers whose work he had been following.
"I had the opportunity to meet some of the big minds in my field face-to-face and interact with them," he said. "It was like meeting a lot of your favorite authors all together in the same venue."
To his surprise, many of those same individuals were eager to meet him.
"I was receiving a lot of questions about my paper,” he explained. “People were not only reading my work, which was already exciting, but they liked my work, which had me ecstatic."
Now a Penn State alumnus, Cuevas continues to collaborate with his EPFL colleagues on research and plans to work on independent research projects at Penn State, all while he prepares to pursue his doctorate in computer science.
With exciting opportunities ahead, Cuevas credits his experiences not only to hard work but also to the University's support.
As a member of the Presidential Leadership Academy, he developed leadership and critical-thinking skills that helped him approach issues from different perspectives and incorporate diverse viewpoints into his work. He also used funds from the Academy, Schreyer Honors College, and the College of IST to study at EPFL and attend the IEEE Symposium.
"I’m very thankful,” he said. “Little did I know that Lausanne was one of the most expensive cities in the world, so my experience would have been significantly different without help."
"Throughout my four years of undergraduate studies, I have always been amazed by the generous support I received from Penn State," he added.