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New professor builds applications that combat cyberattacks

10/26/16 - BOSTON, MA. - Alina Oprea associate professor in CCIS poses for a portrait on Oct. 26, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Earlier this month, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that a nuclear power plant in Germany had been hit by a disruptive cyberattack in 2014.

The news startled Alina Oprea, a network security expert and newly appointed associate professor in the College of Computer and Information Science. “It’s very scary,” says Oprea. “Cybersecurity is a cat-and-mouse game, and the perpetrators seem to be one step ahead of the defenders.”

For her, collaboration is the solution to stopping future attacks, the key to halting hackers and cyberterrorists bent on sparking a global catastrophe. “People in government, academia, and industry have the expertise to address different parts of the problem,” she explains, “but we need to work together in order to have a broader impact.”

10/26/16 - BOSTON, MA. - Alina Oprea associate professor in CCIS poses for a portrait on Oct. 26, 2016.  Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Oprea comes to Northeastern from RSA Laboratories, the security division of EMC.

Oprea is doing her part. As the co-director of Northeastern’s Network and Distributed Systems Laboratory, she oversees a small team of students as they work to apply data mining and machine learning techniques to solve a range of security problems. For example, Oprea and her colleagues are currently collaborating with researchers at Boston University to build a monitoring infrastructure for the Massachusetts Open Cloud Project, a university-​​industry partnership designed to create a new public cloud computing infrastructure to spur Big Data innovation.

“We plan to apply machine learning techniques to profile legitimate activities while detecting a wide range of attacks against the cloud such as data leakage, account compromise, and abuse of cloud services,” she explains.

Oprea comes to Northeastern from RSA Laboratories, the security division of EMC. As a consultant research scientist there, she designed several novel techniques that serve to process large volumes of security log data in order to find patterns indicative of malicious activity. She is the author of more than two dozen journal articles and peer-reviewed conference papers and the associate editor for ACM Transactions on Privacy and Security, one of the nation’s top security journals.

“People in government, academia, and industry have the expertise to address different parts of the problem, but we need to work together in order to have a broader impact.”
— Alina Oprea

As a kid growing up in Romania, she loved math and knew that she wanted to harness the power of numbers to make a positive impact on the world. But she didn’t know that she would make her mark in the field of cybersecurity until her senior year of college at the University of Bucharest, when she took a class in cryptography and then wrote her thesis on the topic of offline digital cash. She went on to earn her doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University, where she developed a digital fingerprint capable of quickly verifying that data stored in the cloud hasn’t been maliciously altered or accidentally corrupted.

Now Oprea is teaching her own doctoral students, leading a special topics course on security analytics for those who are interested in applying machine learning to advance cybersecurity. She is also overseeing an undergraduate student’s independent study, for which he is working to collect network traffic data for the Massachusetts Open Cloud Project.

“I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work with students to teach some of the most relevant things that are happening in our industry,” she says. “Northeastern is very collaborative, which makes it a great place to do cybersecurity research.”