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How a Waikato Uni grad transformed Tonga's cyber security

14 Jun 2017

The man behind the research that brought New Zealand and Tonga together on a joint cyber security journey knew very little about computers in his Tongan homeland, but over the space of ten years he built up his research to become a major influence in the cyber security space.

Siuta Laulaupea'alu migrated from the island of Okoa in Tonga, which was home to just 400 people in poverty and where computers were rarely seen.

In 2007, Laulaupea'alu migrated to New Zealand and eventually became a permanent resident. In 2011, he started studying IT. He now wants to give back to the region that raised him.

Speaking to the University of Waikato, Laulaupea'alu says that at the time he didn't even know how to send emails.

“I wanted to study a degree in business management because I had some experience in that field, but it meant I needed to know how to use a computer.”

“The reason I am studying is to help my people. And I don’t just want to help Tonga, I want to help the whole Pacific," Laulaupea'alu says.

As part of his Master of Cyber Security at the University of Waikato - the first degree of its kind in New Zealand, he worked on a thesis that analysed the Tongan Government's computer networks and identified potential security risks.

That research took Laulaupea'alu directly to Tonga, where he presented his research to more than 20 information system personnel from line ministries and agencies in Tonga.

The research was an effort to grow country relationships and highlight the importance of cybersecurity in an age when the cost of cybercrime is rapidly rising. 

“My research showed there are a lot of new issues people, even those in government, don’t know about. I want to look for the root problems to protect the government and its people in the future," he says.

The Government of Tonga saw the value in Laulaupea'alu's research. Last month the Government of Tonga and the University of Waikato signed a memorandum of understanding for collaborating on security issues. It was signed during the WannaCry ransomware outbreak, highlighting the importance of strong security. 

“If we don’t develop a better understanding of cyber security and implement strategies as a society, cybercrimes will become commonplace,” Laulaupea'alu says.

Laulaupea'alu, his family and for Tonga, his success in achieving the Master of Cyber Security has helped him to become the first in his family, and the first from his island to study for a PhD. His PhD will focus on online scams.

“What people don’t realise is that individuals aren’t committing online scams. There are criminal networks targeting people.” The prevalence and constant advancement of these scams is a cause for major concern. “It’s not that easy to recognise a scam,” he says.

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