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In a decade, the Secure Systems Demo Day has become a “must” for security experts

On June 8, cybersecurity researchers, industry experts and students gathered for an annual meet-up to catch up and share the latest research news.

People mingling at the poster session.

100+ participants attended the Secure Systems Demo Day 2023 that was organised in the CS building at Aalto University. Photo: Aalto University/Matti Ahlgren.


The Secure Systems groups at Aalto University and University of Helsinki, led by N. Asokan, Tuomas Aura, Lachlan Gunn and Valtteri Niemi, and recently also by Janne Lindqvist, have been organising the annual Secure Systems Demo Days since 2014 to present ongoing research in cybersecurity to local security experts and students studying the topic. In a decade, the event has become a “must” for security experts who participate the event every year to meet fellow experts and new students who are about to graduate and start their careers in the cybersecurity field.

The idea of an annual Demo Day is even older and goes back to Asokan’s and Valtteri’s time at Nokia Research Center in the early 2000s.

‘That’s right. The idea of “demoday” for cybersecurity/privacy research actually started from our Nokia Research Center days. I think I organised the first one in 2006 and it was done annually until 2010 while I was leading the team. I then resumed it in the University of Helsinki in 2014,’ recalls Asokan who founded the Secure Systems Demo Days.

Jan-Erik Ekberg, Head of Helsinki System Security Lab, Huawei, has participated in almost every Demo Day. In 2006, Jan-Erik was working in Asokan’s team at Nokia Research Center. Later, as a doctoral student, Jan-Erik participated Demo Days with posters and demonstrations. Nowadays Jan-Erik attends the events as an industry expert and a Master’s thesis advisor for several Aalto students.

‘Every year I come, to meet old acquaintances (most students from Aalto or UH) in the field of security research. My personal topic is system security, but I can also observe ML security and related topics having  formed “a clique of its own”. In this event one can see what the Universities (and others) are up to in terms of research, and this gives an excellent snapshot of “where we are at” in Finland with these topic,’ Jan-Erik explains.

‘In recent years I have also been privileged to get to supervise a fair bit of M.Sc students, and I have tried to make sure that they all come and present their work at this event, not only for thesis dissemination, but getting to know your peers and what they are doing in an almost non-formal environment can help them with future employment and/or be beneficial for their network-building in the Helsinki region,’ Jan-Erik adds.

During the past ten years, research at Secure Systems groups has focused mainly on mobile platform security, machine learning and security, network security and security protocol engineering, 5G security and cryptography. Researchers have also worked on other security themes, such as stylometry and security, contextual security, cloud and IoT security, and blockchains.

Secure Systems research groups have had active industry collaboration throughout the years but not only research-wise. One leading purpose for organising Demo Days is to introduce new students to the academy and industry experts and thereby help students to find internships and jobs after graduation. Since the establishment of Helsinki-Aalto Institute for Cybersecurity (HAIC, former Helsinki-Aalto Center for Information Security) in 2016, HAIC has been active in industry collaboration, for example by offering industry-donated scholarships to top incoming master’s students and organising company visits and “Meet & Greet” events for students to meet company representatives. The last couple of years HAIC has invited cybersecurity companies to join the Demo Days with company desks where students have had a change to chat with company representatives and learn about companies’ recruitment processes.

Alona Nechytailo, Talent Acquisition & Employer Branding Specialist from SSH Communications Security, joined the 2023 event (with a couple of Aalto security graduates, who joined the company as interns and are now full-time employees) to meet new security students.

‘It is important for us to be present where students are because it allows us to connect with the next generation of professionals and share our expertise. By engaging with students early on, we can introduce them to the real environment and technologies in use in the security space, contribute to their learning, and ultimately strengthen our industry as a whole,’ Alona sums up SSH’s motivation to attend the event.

In addition to HAIC’s current sponsor companies WithSecure and SSH, also Elisa, Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia Bell Labs, and Nvidia joined the 2023 event.

HAIC’s coordinator Niina Idänheimo sees Asokan’s initiative and proactivity in annual Demo Days and building a community for cybersecurity researchers invaluable.

‘The local security community has continued to gather annually after Asokan moved to the University of Waterloo, Canada, in 2019, and even during the COVID-19 pandemic when we organised the event virtually twice (2020 and 2021),’ Niina recalls.

After the pandemic, there has been discussion going on how to get people back to campus and to participate events, but this is not a problem with cybersecurity researchers.

‘No matter the form of an event, security people seem to be loyal to the event and they show up eager to share the latest research news and happy to catch up since the last event. I feel so fortunate to work with these people and be part of this ecosystem,’ Niina says.

HAIC’s activities are now on a summer break. In Autumn, HAIC returns to work with an annual “Meet & Greet” event for the new security master’s students, a couple of public HAIC talks, a special crypto seminar and a couple of company visits in the end of the year. But before the autumn term starts, there’s excitement in the air as four doctoral students from the Aalto Secure Systems Group, Abu Ahmed, Aleksi Peltonen, Sebastian Szyller, and Siddhart Rao, will defend their doctoral theses in August. Niina is looking forward to the coming doctoral defences.

‘I started to work at Aalto University roughly at the same time when these doctoral students started their studies and (as with every graduating student,) I’m excited, happy, and proud of these smart new doctors and their achievements. Yet at the same time I’m almost heartbroken, longing for meeting them again.’

Perhaps in the next year’s Demo Day, at latest.