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Story | Education
7 August 2020

Professor at Qatar Foundation wins prestigious computing award for data encryption solution


Applications that require data encryption can benefit from the solution developed by Dr. Roberto Di Pietro and his co-authors.

Image source:, via Shutterstock

Dr. Roberto Di Pietro, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University at Qatar Foundation’s Education City, has become the most recent winner of the Jean-Claude Laprie award. Dr Di Pietro was one of four authors of a paper that provides a solution for data encryption and cyber security that, over a decade since its publication, is still unmatched.

Jean-Claude Laprie used to say that security is one of the five fundamental attributes of dependability. The French computer scientist was one of the pioneers in the field of dependable computing, best known for defining the technical terms used today to express systems’ performance and the problems they face. He was awarded several national awards, including being named Knight of the National Order of Merit in 2002.

Since 2012, the IFIP Working Group on Dependable Computing and Fault Tolerance (IFIP WG 10.4) has given an award in Mr. Laprie’s honor, to recognize outstanding academic papers that have had significant influence on the theory or practice of dependable computing.

Dr. Roberto Di Pietro.

This spring, one of Qatar Foundation’s Education City professors became a winner of the 2020 Jean-Claude Laprie award. Dr. Roberto Di Pietro, a professor of cyber security at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) - a Qatar Foundation member - joined co-authors Giuseppe Ateniese, Luigi V. Mancini and Gene Tsudik in receiving the accolade for their 2008 paper, “Scalable and Efficient Provable Data Possession.”

In it, the authors offer the first solution to providing encryption for dynamic data – data that changes frequently. It allows a system to safeguard data security as well as the addition of new data, deletion of existing data, and modification of data at a block level.

Privacy and security are within the same field, but you can have one and not the other

Dr. Roberto Di Pietro

Applications that require data encryption, like banking or secure information transmission, can benefit from the solution, as can the overall digital transformation of economies, like moving contracts to cyberspace and creating new secure financial transactions.

Since its publication over ten years ago, the paper provides remains unsurpassed.

“The paper is instrumental in forming a bridge between the research communities on security, and on dependable systems and networks,” says Elmootazbellah N. Elnozahy, the chair of the IFIP WG 10.4.

While the Jean-Claude Laprie award may not be well-known outside computer science circles, its impact – and what it celebrates – is far-reaching. The solutions provided in winning papers can be seen in aviation, transportation, space applications and more. And in order to win the award, papers must show a certain longevity in terms of their technical, scientific, commercial and industrial impact.

“To ensure that the paper’s impact is evaluated properly, we insist on a period of 10 years, at least, since publication,” says Elnozahy, “to ensure that we select only papers that have shown influence over a long period of time.”

Everything you store on a system is a pass for an attacker… In technical terms, this application is making the security parameter larger

Dr. Roberto Di Pietro

But Dr. Di Pietro says that the contents of the winning paper are just a fraction of what is essential to the field of reliable distributed computing today when it comes to privacy and security. With personal data, information and preferences increasingly online, the potential for cyber attacks has greatly increased.

In his position at HBKU’s College of Science and Engineering, Dr. Di Pietro has led efforts to create a world-class research center in cyber security, and has worked to find solutions that address the delicate balance between security and privacy.

“Privacy and security are within the same field, but you can have one and not the other,” says Dr. Di Pietro. “Privacy is more difficult. Even if everyone’s talking about it, very few companies want to invest in it, especially because they’re using your data so they can know your preferences.”

Even now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of privacy and security has once again arisen, as governments attempt to create an application to track individual health via mobile phones – inevitably exposing personal data to national governments.

Science is so competitive nowadays that you really have to think outside the box in order to make an impact otherwise you’ll be one of many investigating the same thing

Dr. Roberto Di Pietro

“We’re working on how secure they are. They’re the door to your most personal device – your mobile phone,” says Dr. Di Pietro. “Everything you store on a system is a pass for an attacker… In technical terms, this application is making the security parameter larger.”

And while Dr. Di Pietro regrets the fact that countries are currently working independently of one another when it comes to creating an effective COVID-19 tracking app, he says he feels lucky to be part of the Doha-based team when it comes to research in general. In his previous position as the Global Lead for Security Research at Bell Labs, working from Paris, Munich and Espoo, budget constraints often led to frustration.

In Qatar, cyber security is a pillar of the country’s national vision, and hard work and innovation are financially rewarded, meaning ideas can eventually become reality. He and his fellow researchers have been proposed 16 patents in the past two years.

Cyber security is one of the core areas of research focus in Qatar. Image source: Husjur02, via Shutterstock

“Here, they look for ambitious challenges that question the common assumptions,” says Dr. Di Pietro. “Science is so competitive nowadays that you really have to think outside the box in order to make an impact otherwise you’ll be one of many investigating the same thing.”

The research and innovation coming out of Qatar continue to make their mark, and pay tribute to Jean-Claude Laprie in his absence. Dr. Di Pietro and his team are constantly looking for new solutions that could have lasting effects on the field of dependable computing, just as Mr Laprie’s work did, up until his death in 2010. Dr. Di Pietro says that true innovation, like that of the famous French computer scientist, can stand the test of time.

“The things [Jean-Claude Laprie] taught are still relevant,” says Dr. Di Pietro. “There are some fundamental elements that don’t change – like gravity – and are not subject to obsolescence.”

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