Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Why people cheat in academia and life

This is an essay I wrote either in 2012 and 2013 illustrating why people cheat:

It is commonly said that “most people are virtuous, but a few bad apples spoil the bunch”. This pseudo-proverb reveals a truth that many of us try not to notice but is nonetheless a reality that has been empirically observed and fact-checked. The vast majority of young people (and adults for that matter) believe that cheating is wrong. Yet, by nearly every poll, most young people cheat at least once in their high school career. So, the most important question is why do young people behave in ways that are inconsistent with their stated beliefs? Two of the major reasons behind cheating are: the survival instinct and the easy way out.

First, cheating is in one’s self-interest and increases one’s chances of survival. As Ariely said: “Everybody has the capability to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats – just by a little” (2012, p12).  I am not a psychologist, but I believe there is a mechanism within each of us which triggers a need to "save face." Saving face can mean a desire to save oneself from the angry assault of a parent or teacher; it can mean avoiding embarrassment; it can mean economic survival or a perceived pressure be it self-inflicted or inflicted by some other extraneous force. Although I cannot excuse it, I understand why an educator imposes unbearable testing pressure on his students in order to better ensure the results of the State official exams. If you tell a school administrator that his school's existence or employment might hinge on his students' performance on a test, I believe you are tempting him to cheat in order to achieve a better outcome. Most human beings have a breaking point and when anything threatens a person's livelihood, income and/or social status, you put them in a survival mode. In other words, as you threaten that individual's existence, you tempt them to reach their moral breaking point. What lies at the heart of cheating in any avenue of life, whether personal, academic or career, is self-interest, which most would argue is a particularly vile human attribute. To sum up, there may be nothing more fundamental to human existence than self-interest which, at its foundation, is an expression of our most basic instinct to survive.

Second, cheating offers an easy way out.  Cheaters break the rules to gain an unfair advantage in any competitive situation.  They do not have to cheat all the time, but once faced with a challenge that they do actually want to win, they will go back to their cheating strategies. For example, cheating in high school means better grades and likely admittance into better colleges. Cheating in college provides admission to better graduate programs and more job opportunities. Cheating in graduate school results in better job offers. Cheating among athletes with performance-enhancing drugs provides a performance advantage on the field that can start as early as high school and continue into the professional and Olympic ranks. Cheating in the financial industry results in a bigger paycheck and a faster and higher advancement. Cheating by corporations ensures continuing market share and profits (and survival) when companies are dying daily. Some people simply like to pick the easy way out. Why bother studying hard and doing all those term papers by yourself if you can use somebody else's work? Seriously, why bother? What's the point of studying, working hard, and going to college? Can't you skip all the hassle and hard work and just cheat?  After all, you’re only concerned about money or accomplishing anything “great” in this world. Unwilled to do the work, or just plain lazy, some people don't want to put the time and effort into studying and learning. They take the easy way out by cheating. This may go hand-in-hand with the belief that cheating is "easy" and "no big deal," and "everyone does it”.

Ultimately, cheating is an omnipresent phenomenon in human society and is a behaviour that we can find in the lives of the majority of any population. The reasons, however, for such a human trait seem to be more complex.


Sunday, July 22, 2018

Receiving a 120,000£ (160,000$) scholarship for my doctorate degree at Oxford University

I am very happy and grateful to have received a 120,000£ scholarship to support me for my next 4-years of studies at Oxford University.

The scholarship was awarded by Fondation Sesam, founded by Abdallah Chatila, which is a non-profit organization based in Switzerland: 

"Non-profit organization recognized by the cantonal authorities of Geneva as a public utility, sesame is a donor foundation based in Geneva. It supports social projects in Geneva and Lebanon, the country of origin of its founder. Sesam favours the creation of partnerships with associations, NGOs or programs aimed primarily at the most disadvantaged." (Translated) 

I will be pursuing a DPhil (PhD) in Cybersecurity from the 28th of September 2018 until the 7th of October 2022. This is what I will be studying:

"The student will receive a broad education for two terms in the broad topics of cyber security, including social and technical aspects.  Research will follow from this, in one of four areas: security of big data, cyber-physical security; effective systems assurance; and real-time security controls.  Students will use techniques from systems engineering, mathematical modelling, empirical research, and other methods to determine the effectiveness of existing security controls and to design and evaluate new approaches for improving cyber security in realistic and deployed contexts, for current and future technologies; against both known and newly-emerging threats."

I am very grateful to the professors that vouched for me at the University of Southampton. The friendship and support provided by the other members of the School of Electronics and Computer Science was groundbreaking. I am indebted to them for their help.

As a computer professional, I believe that is my responsibility to study and find solutions for social and ethical issues that emerge from the cyber world and especially ones related to cyber-security. Mixing my depth knowledge in Computer Science and Cybersecurity would also make a great candidate for this course at Oxford University. The EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training would also provide the perfect opportunity for me to fulfil my dream of contributing to the advancement of cyber-security. 

I am ready to start my new journey at the University of Oxford and make the most out of it.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Dealing with a security vulnerability

A few days ago, one of my websites which are run by an American startup, has received an email entailing details of a possible security vulnerability. The email was forwarded to me and I followed up on the situation.

The email came from a gentleman from the Netherlands named Thijs who is a security research and a university student:

After doing further research, it was evident that the vulnerability is present on the site and affects search pages only. The vulnerability was resolved within hours.

The search page affected has resulted in 43 million search queries since 2016, it is highly likely that the security vulnerability has been exploited: 

I cannot reveal any further details of the vulnerability but I am glad that it was resolved. Thjis was rewarded with a small bounty of 100$:

Ethical white-hat security researchers like Thijs should be cherished. Have I been able to increase the bounty reward for Thijs, I would have done it. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

How to increase security of confidential digital files

If you've ever had sensitive documents, files, or photos and you want to store them securely in a digital environment. The only way to do that store them in an environment (computer) that:

  • Has never been connected to the internet 
  • Doesn't have any Wifi, Ethernet, Bluetooth chips
  • Has its location undisclosed
  • No one is aware of its existence 
  • Is not connected to systems that have been connected to the internet
This is known as an air-gapped computer. If you ever decide to make your air-gapped computer, you should never discuss its existence with anyone, especially on the web. You should know that your air-gapped computer could be vulnerable to attacks so the first step is to not disclose its existence with anyone.

All the attacks I've been stumbled upon know where the location of the victim machine is, so you really need be careful with the secrecy.

Do not use any operating system other than Linux. Do not use Windows. I do recommend Centos 6 or 7 (Linux).

Do not buy commercial laptops to accomplish this task, instead build your own desktop PC, buy your own parts.

Air-gapped computers have been targeted by attacks in the past, so they are still not fully secure. You might want to strongly encrypt any files you add on those computers.

I've come to accept and understand that nothing I do online will be secure or private, it took me years to accept the concept, but I have adapted now.  Every email, photo, message, text you send and receive online no matter what companies brag about. Similarly, your online 'bank account' could be intercepted as well. Even things you do offline are not fully secure.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't use the internet, but it means you should not never send or store anything you deem confidential on the web.