PhD student on mission to stop phishing attacks awarded funding from Alan Turing Institute

A PhD researcher working to develop software to put an end to sophisticated phishing emails has been chosen as one of this year’s recipients of the Alan Turing Institute’s Enrichment Community Award. 

Trevor Wood, a second-year PhD student at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU)’s Cyber Technology Institute, is conducting a study into how artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to teach computers to detect phishing attacks before they reach a user’s inbox, in the same way junk mail is identified in advance. 

Trevor Wood PhD Student
Trevor Wood is a second-year PhD student at DMU's Cyber Technology Institute

As a recipient of the Enrichment Community Award, which includes a flexible £1,500 research grant, Trevor will gain access to access to Alan Turing Institute’s events, seminars, reading groups, and workshops delivered by leaders in research, government, and industry.  

Trevor said: “Receiving this award gives me the chance to work with some of the top AI researchers not only here in the UK but from also from around the world!” 

The Alan Turing Institute is the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, founded in 2015. It is named after Alan Turing, the British mathematician and computing pioneer. 

“It will provide me with access to a whole load of resources and information that I would not have had otherwise. They also have special interest groups that will be of great value to me, as they relate directly to the subject of my PhD,” said Trevor. 

IT specialist Trevor, who has worked in the field for 45 years and run his own website development business for the last 25 years, is particularly interested in preventing ‘spear phishing’ emails. 

Spear phishing is where scam emails appear to be from a trustworthy source but instead lead unknowing recipients to a bogus website full of malware. Often targeted towards specific individuals and organisations, these emails use clever tactics to get victims' attention. 

Having completed a Master’s in Cyber Security at DMU in 2019, he was inspired to do a PhD after seeing a rise in the number of phishing attacks against his own customers. 

“Spear phishing campaigns are becoming more and more targeted,” he explained. “Cybercriminals behind these scams have usually done quite a lot of background research to work out exactly who to send the emails to. 

“I had one client who received a phishing email claiming he had not paid an overdue invoice and that if he did not pay it immediately, he would be taken to court. 

“These emails look real and often look like they are coming from someone senior within a reputable company. The ‘bad guys’ have even been known to wait until that senior colleague is on holiday when they send these scams, so there is less chance of getting caught.” 

Using natural language processing (NLP) – where you give computers the ability to understand text and spoken words in the same way humans can – Trevor plans to create new software that can spot whether an email is genuine or whether it is in fact a spear phishing attack. 

In 2021, a study conducted by the Ponemon Institute, found that the average annual cost of phishing attacks was $14.8 million for a 9,600-employee organisation – more than triple the amount in 2015, which was $3.8 million. 

“The cost of phishing scams is going up and it’s because they look so real and are not currently detectable until after they have been actioned or clicked on,” said Trevor. 

“My end goal is to create a real, marketable product that can protect end users and save businesses money.” 

As well as receiving recognition from the Alan Turing Institute, Trevor was also a runner-up in DMU’s 3MT (Three Minute Thesis) competition his year – part of a national contest which challenges postgraduates from universities around the UK to explain their thesis in just three minutes to an audience of non-academics – for comparison, the average 80,000-word thesis would take nine hours to present! 

Professor Eerke Boiten, Head of School of Computer Science and Informatics and Professor of Cyber Security, is one of Trevor’s PhD supervisors. He said: “Trevor's PhD work is to use natural language processing, a branch of AI, to improve detection of phishing emails, which form the starting point of a lot of cybercrime including ransomware attacks.

"The prestigious Alan Turing Institute brings together many of the top researchers in AI in the UK, and it is fantastic that they have sponsored Trevor to connect with them in order to get inspiration and feedback for his research work.”

Posted on Friday 27 May 2022

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