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Computer games, cold-brew coffee, and a cybersecurity engineer

Posted on | 29 Jan 2021 Faces of LTA Series

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When Ms Alina Tan started playing computer games at the age of eight, the last thing she expected was for her pastime to morph into her profession. After all, gaming was a form of escapism, a convenient distraction from school work.

So when the Y2K Bug wreaked havoc on her computer system in the year 2000, she was devastated. Thankfully, her mother’s computer-savvy friend came to her rescue. After hours of reformatting and reconfiguration, the computer was revived.

“As I sat beside her and saw her rectify the issue, the whole process left an impression on me,” recalled Alina, 28, now a senior cybersecurity engineer at the Land Transport Authority.

It dawned on her that computer software was part of a larger ecosystem of intricate mechanisms that powered machines and processes. She was hooked.

“That curiosity sparked my interest in how to create things on the computer,” she said. “It also helped to supplement my understanding of how things work and operate on a system.”

 
The legal hacker

In her pursuit to find out how things work, she had to “break” things. This prompted her to take modules on ethical hacking tools during her school days in the polytechnic and university, which eventually sparked her interest in cybersecurity.

She joined LTA’s Cybersecurity team in August 2019, and is now supporting Singapore’s drive to develop autonomous vehiclesHer team explores the cybersecurity testing of such vehicles, with a new Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) lab. 

Launched in May 2020, the lab promotes the knowledge building of CAV cybersecurity capabilities, a new area in the industry that allows the team to build vehicular test benches to understand these systems better and support upcoming LTA projects. It brings support to upcoming LTA projects as well as engaging the community of car manufacturers, car parts suppliers, and security software providers.

This is crucial as autonomous vehicles rely on many connected systems and sensors, and a breach of any of those systems would allow hackers to take over key elements like the steering or brakes.

For Alina, armed with a degree in electrical electronics engineering, she was naturally interested in both automotive and operational technology (OT) security as it enables her to understand how the devices communicate and the control mechanisms. She believes that one of the best ways to secure these devices is to “attack” them to find the vulnerabilities within the systems.

That is exactly what she did earlier last year (2020), only to encounter one of her most comical on-the-job experiences. Alina and her colleague had assembled the components of a particular car model to test its cybersecurity features.

The process, called a test bench, is used to measure the effectiveness of a design or model. Using reverse engineering techniques, she had gained access to the car’s vehicular network. The vehicle’s mainframe was now within reach. But all she heard was a loud, monotonous squeak. Of all the vehicle components present, the only part that reacted was the windshield wipers.

“My colleague and I looked at each other and we couldn’t stop laughing. The wipers wouldn’t go off until I manually turned off the engine!”, she exclaimed with a wide grin.

It was just part of her job. “Understanding how a particular car model works means being able to create reasonable guidelines for manufacturers. Using reverse engineering techniques actually helps you to understand how to create better regulations,” she said. She also focuses on developing automotive cybersecurity regulations for AVs, conducting hands-on technical research and tests. One key project is through the piloting of autonomous buses and on-demand shuttles in Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District.

Wake up and smell the cold-brew

Alina has applied the same inquisitive mind and methodical approach to her love for coffee. The self-professed coffee fanatic has been making her own cold brew coffee at home since the start of Singapore’s circuit-breaker in April 2020. While she enjoyed the coffee served in cafés, the beverages just didn’t quite hit the spot. So she bought a cold-brew coffee maker to create her own concoction.

“When you brew coffee on your own, you get to calibrate its taste — how strong or light you want it to be,” she said. Her preferred choice of coffee beans? Medium-roast. She’s no hardcore purist though. On days when her schedule is tight, she readily admits that she grabs a latte to go from cafes.

When she is not getting a caffeine boost or working, she spends time with local cybersecurity community groups or associations within Singapore – some of which have a chapter for women.

“I think it’s a good way to approach other women in this industry and improve both your technical and soft skills,” she noted. The only thing that she hasn’t had time to do is play computer games, but she has a not-so-poignant reminder of the good old days – intermittent back pain.

It is from carrying two laptops in her bag during her younger days – one for school and one for gaming. “My back is definitely not thanking me for it now!” she said with a laugh.

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