Stories#075 Jerre’s cybersafety

#075 Jerre’s cybersafety

The story of Jos’s joyride is a story of Jerre’s cybersafety

After Jerre Starink, as a child, first sat down in front of a computer and discovered how he could control the device with just a few simple programming rules, there was no stopping him. His PhD research into cybersecurity is right up his alley. Jos Keurentjes, programme director of the Centre for Energy Innovation, is impressed by Jerre’s enthusiasm, but cannot suppress a piece of fatherly advice. ‘Keep looking around you, son.’

Click for Dutch version

Monday 2 may 2022 

A deep longing for transparency 

Jos: ‘Jerre, you are a PhD student at UT. What subject are you working on?’

Jerre: ‘I do research on cybersecurity, and more specifically on malicious software. For every piece of useful software that is developed, a piece of malware is produced. I recently read somewhere that thousands of blocks of code are added every day. To protect yourself against all these computer viruses, you have to be fast, you have to be on top of things. I focus on the automatic recognition and understanding of behavioural patterns in malware. What does this piece of malicious software do exactly? How does it try to circumvent security?’

Jos: ‘More and more countries and organisations enter the field of digital espionage, sabotage and influence. Not only malicious hackers, but also governments are using cyberattacks to obtain sensitive data from others or to paralyse vital infrastructures. How do you view that side of your profession?’

Jerre: ‘In the cyberworld we speak of blue teams and red teams, defensive and offensive. I’m in the blue team. My research revolves around the question: how do we minimize the damage of cyberattacks? To me, that question is morally right and professionally the most interesting. But, as you point out, more and more parties are moving into red territory. Where people used to chase each other with bows and arrows, nowadays cyberwarfare plays an increasingly important role. And if everyone else is arming themselves, a government can’t say: ‘we will not take part’. I understand that, but I prefer to focus on the solution. What has occurred or may occur and how do we defend ourselves against it? I’d rather stay away from breaking in, hacking and snooping around in places I shouldn’t be.’

Jos: ‘Is the line between morally responsible and morally reprehensible always clear?’

Jerre: ‘Good question. Sometimes it gets blurred. Cybersecurity training often has an offensive component. After all, the best way to defend yourself is to find out how your opponent thinks and acts. You choose to play the attacker to gain knowledge you can use to defend yourself.’

Jos: ‘Let’s move on to something a little more light-hearted. Where are you from and how did you end up where you are now?’

Jerre: ‘I come from a village in the north of the Netherlands with less than 350 inhabitants, a quiet place in a rural area. In primary school, I was way ahead in maths. That is why, in sixth or seventh grade, my teacher gave me a mathematics book that is used in the first year of secondary school. I have been fascinated by it ever since. In high school, I focused on the science subjects, and I took all the maths classes I could take. Many colleagues studied computer science and cybersecurity because they love programming. For me, the attraction is also very much in the applied mathematics. I see my work as a correct mathematical model, I think in terms of mathematical representations of reality.’

Jos: ‘Ha, say no more. For you, nothing beats a good equation.’

Jerre: ‘Ha ha! True!

Jos: ‘Do you have any other fascinations or does mathematics have your absolute attention?’

Jerre: ‘When, as a teenager, I discovered how to write a very simple computer program, I was hooked. I would be programming for hours and hours. Besides that, I have always loved to draw, but unfortunately I haven’t done much drawing in recent years. I do want to pick it up again, also because I see a parallel between drawing and the way I think about my work. When I make a drawing, I don’t just start sketching. I have an image in my head, an idea of the composition I want to make. I only start working when I have a plan. That’s how programming works for me, too.’

Jos: ‘Do you have a favourite artist or work of art?’

Jerre: ‘I have no preference for a particular movement or artist. I really like comic style, but an abstract piece can also move me. I make realistic drawings myself, mostly landscapes.’

Jos: ‘Is that why you came to study at UT? Do you like the landscape of Twente better than the big city?’

Jerre: ‘I could have gone to Amsterdam, Utrecht or Groningen, but I chose UT because of my interest in both the technical side of ICT and its applications in society. The small scale of the campus really appealed to me and two of my friends decided to study in Enschede as well. And yes, it’s true that the surroundings – the woods, the meadows – remind me of where I come from.’

Jos: ‘You have been at UT for a while now. In a few years your dissertation will be ready. Any idea what your next step will be?’

Jerre: ‘My research will keep me occupied for another three and a half years. What will come after that, I don’t know yet. At the moment, I find the academic world very interesting. If this was my last year, I would like to continue teaching and doing research for a while. You know, I don’t see my work as ‘just’ a job. Programming, analysing malware, improving software – these are things I don’t just do between nine and five, but also in my spare time. It fascinates me immensely. There is no bigger plan behind what I do. This is what I enjoy doing the most.’

Jos: ‘I recognise this absence of a bigger plan. If you look at my career, it goes from left to right, and back again. But in retrospect, I see more of a line in it than I thought before. Maybe this question will help you: what drives you? What would you like to achieve?’

Jerre: ‘What drives me .... I am certainly not going after the big bucks and I am not aiming for a high position at Google or Microsoft. I’m not saying that I would decline a nice offer, but for now that’s not where my attention is. What drives me ... I think ... Do you know what open source software is?’

Jos: ‘Software that can be used freely by everyone.’

Jerre: ‘Exactly. The idea is that developers publish the source code for everybody to use. And if it doesn’t work as it should, people can change it. That transparency is very important in cybersecurity. Every component can be checked, nothing is secret. Anyone can verify what data is collected and how it is used. When I think about what I do and what drives me, my answer is this: working on open source projects, improving source codes, optimising cybersecurity. I do that from a deep ... desire ... is that the right word? Yes, I think it is. A desire to contribute to a better world.’

Jos: ‘If you feel so strongly about this, it must be rather frustrating that many people are so naive, accepting cookies blindly, ticking all sorts of boxes without reading the conditions. Is this ignorance also something that drives you?’

Jerre: ‘Yes, I think so. I really enjoy teaching, for example. To explain concepts – programming concepts, maths concepts, whatever concepts. To educate others on the things I understand well myself. And perhaps in this way making the world a little less naïve.’

Jos: ‘You strike me as a very driven, sweet and clever young man. The ideal son-in-law. A bit of a silly question perhaps, but do you ever let your hair down?’

Jerre: ‘Hmm. I don’t know if I can, really. I believe I always try to follow the rules. I just like order.’

Jos: ‘May I give you some final advice? Don’t just follow the beaten path, break your patterns sometimes. Keep looking around you and map out your own route.’

Jerre: ‘That is good advice. Because even though I like order and regularity, I don’t have a set plan. I know I can go in different directions. But I don’t want ‘life’ to decide which turns I take; I want to make my own choices. Thank you, Jos.’


Prof. dr. ir. Jos Keurentjes (1963)

is director of the Centre for Energy Innovation at UT. Before taking on this challenge, he was part of the board of directors of TNO as chief scientific officer, from 2014 to 2020. At AkzoNobel he held two roles; first as research manager for Process Technology (1991-1997) and later as corporate director technology (2007-2014). In between these jobs he was professor of Process and Equipment Design at TU Eindhoven. Keurentjes studied environmental health at Wageningen University, where he also did his PhD research in bioprocess engineering. He completed both cum laude.

Jerre Starink (24)

is a PhD student at the Department of Services and Cybersecurity (SCS) of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EEMCS). He conducts research on malicious software, or malware, with the aim of automatically recognising and understanding behavioural patterns in malicious software and countering attacks. Jerre studied Computer Science at the UT.