For 30 years, Professor Willy Susilo has been at the forefront of cryptographic and cybersecurity breakthroughs, forging the path to Australian cybersecurity and teaching others to do the same.
When Distinguished Professor Willy Susilo first arrived in Australia in the mid-1990s, he didn’t know he’d stay here for the next three decades to eventually become one of the most prominent Australian cryptographers. Straight out of college in Surabaya, the second-largest Indonesian metropolis that serves as the gateway to east Java, he was more used to skyscrapers and the urban hustle and bustle than the quiet, coastal vibe of the Illawarra.
“I laugh at this now as we have all the ultra-modern facilities at our labs at the University of Wollongong (UOW), but when I first moved here in 1996, Australia was a little behind in computer sciences. Wollongong was also a very tranquil place. I used to study late at night and walk from the UOW Library to my flat after midnight. I wouldn’t do that now, but it was safe back then,” Professor Susilo says.
Fast forward to 2023, after almost three decades of a highly successful academic career spent at UOW – with 500 research papers, 44 approved patents, and many professional awards and affiliations under his belt, Professor Susilo shows no signs of relenting.
And the reality is that – as a Head of the UOW School of Computing & Information Technology and the Director of the Institute of Cybersecurity and Cryptology (iC2) – his skills have never been more in demand.
Professor Willy Susilo in his office at the Institute of Cybersecurity and Cryptology.
As a science, cryptography is older than the pyramids. The development of encryption can be traced back to the Middle East and dates back as far as 3500 years ago. It was even mentioned in the Indian manuscript of the Kama Sutra and a story of a Medieval German cryptographer accused of black magic.
Yet, amid our ever-evolving digital landscape, data has emerged as the strongest currency and the lifeblood of our interconnected world. It controls everything around us: from traffic lights, cashless payments and surgery schedules to international governance. However, the rise of data-driven systems brings with it significant challenges. The looming presence of cyber threats poses a constant risk, as data breaches can send shockwaves through organisations, companies and governments alike. As a result, the need to establish robust data controls and tighten security measures becomes paramount to safeguard sensitive information and maintain the integrity of digital infrastructure in Australia.
According to information from the Australian Institute of Criminology, in 2022, the total cost of cybercrimes reached over $1 billion per year, with 30 per cent of Australians declaring to have been victims of online fraud and scams.
“Data is the most powerful currency of today, and with quantum computing on the way, we’re in a constant battle with potential fraudsters who want to compromise previously secure, highly sensitive information,” Professor Susilo explains.
At the Institute of Cybersecurity and Cryptology (iC2), formerly known as the Centre for Computer and Information Security Research, Professor Susilo leads a team of 20 staff and 30 PhD students. Together, they’ve been implementing innovations in cybersecurity, cryptography and information security while training the next generation of technology security professionals.
The Centre was founded by Emeritus Professor Jennifer Seberry – a legendary cryptographer who was the first person to introduce and teach cryptology at an Australian university. Professor Susilo calls Professor Seberry ‘his role model’.
“I think everyone with a passion for their job should have some people they look up to. Professor Seberry was such a person to me. She is why I decided to study at UOW and stay here despite offers from other universities worldwide. She has built the foundations of computer security education in Australia, and it was a privilege to learn from her,” Professor Susilo explains.
Professor Susilo says he’d always been fortunate to be mentored by other well-known researchers in the field, including his PhD supervisor, Professor Rei Safavi-Naini (now at University of Calgary) and Professor Josef Pieprzyk (now at Data61), as well as many inspiring colleagues within UOW.
“I consider myself lucky to have worked with very talented people, nurture their careers and see them grow within the Institute of Cybersecurity and Cryptography at UOW.”
Because in his heart, Professor Susilo is as proud of his research achievements as he is of the thousands of cybersecurity experts he has taught over the years.
His teaching career at UOW began unexpectedly but turned out to be a transformative and lasting experience. He still remembers how, as a PhD student, he attended a large programming class of around 600 people with a lecturer struggling to maintain control and having paper planes and half-eaten apples thrown at her. After one incident, young Willy Susilo was approached by the head of the school and asked to help manage the class in the regular teacher’s absence.
“I immediately thought that programming should be taught in a more fun and interactive way, and the students loved it when I changed the pace from a theoretical approach to practical demonstrations. I’ve stayed on to teach this first-year programming class for years, seeing its enrolment numbers fluctuate and software programs evolve,” Professor Susilo says.
Teaching was just the beginning of Professor Susilo’s remarkable career. As a prominent researcher, he has published numerous research papers, book chapters and patented many cybersecurity algorithms.
When asked about sustaining his prolific work, he emphasises the importance of dedication, perseverance and staying passionate about your chosen profession.
“My dream has always been to have my name in a textbook. Cryptography is an ever-changing area, so anyone can always achieve more. I always tell my students: find your passion, and it will carry you forward,” Professor Susilo says.
In his quest to protect sensitive data in Australia, Professor Susilo highlights the need for responsible data handling and education to make people more aware of where their data ends after uploading it to social media, any cloud-based platform or AI tools like Chat GPT.
“Data storage and its use should not be treated lightly; it is akin to uploading important photos or patented work without considering the consequences.”
Looking ahead, the most imminent challenge to data protection – according to Professor Susilo – lies in quantum computing. As an emerging field of technology and unlike classical computers, which use bits to store and process information as 0s and 1s, quantum computers use quantum bits (or qubits), which can exist in multiple states simultaneously thanks to a property called superposition. This unique characteristic of qubits allows quantum computers to handle vast amounts of data and perform calculations at an unprecedented speed.
For Professor Susilo, it means that cryptographers and data experts need to work against time, trying to develop innovative approaches to safeguard against the potential impact of quantum machines.
“In this rapidly evolving digital landscape, our work aims to pave the way for a safer and more secure future of data in Australia and globally. Sometimes, I feel like a Sisyphus endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill with new threats emerging constantly. But that’s also the beauty of cryptography - it always keeps you busy,” Professor Susilo concludes.