Bart Jacobs will receive Stevin Prize 2021
Bart Jacobs (1963), Professor of Security, Privacy and Identity at Radboud University, will receive the 2021 Stevin Prize on 13 October. The Stevin Prize is an award and honour for (combinations of two or three) researchers with international reputations who have achieved an exceptional success in the area of knowledge exchange and impact for society.
Simon Stevin (1548–1620), a brilliant mathematician and hydraulic engineer, has been called the Archimedes of the Low Countries. He published mainly in Dutch and introduced many terms that we still use today, including the word “mathematics”, which Stevin called “wisconst”, or the knowledge of what is certain. Jacobs will be the first mathematician to receive the Stevin Prize, which is mainly the result of the applications and breadth of his research.
Security and privacy
Bart Jacobs is an international authority in the field of computer security and privacy, and he takes a keen interest in the related public debates. He regularly fuels public debate on the security of our digital systems and data. “I can be a pain in the neck, but a useful one”, Jacobs once said about himself. Among other things, he has exposed vulnerabilities in the security of debit cards, car keys and the public transport chip card, and he has drawn attention to the facts that voting machines cannot guarantee voting secrecy, that some ‘smart’ meters work rather sloppily, and that our confidential data is not safe in countless databases. His critical commentary on the European Payment Service Directive PSD2 – which he called “a European strategic blunder” in 2017 – led to a hearing in Pariliament and completely changed the course of the debate.
Although these days there is almost daily news to report on cybersecurity, Jacobs was alert to it early on. “Journalists who called me 15 years ago were ignorant, naive really. That was true for society as a whole: there was still a great deal of confidence in digital development at the time”, he told Follow the Money in 2017. “For example, it took a long time before people were convinced that voting machines could be manipulated. Today, politicians, policymakers and the business community are well aware that security and privacy issues can make or break your plans.
After the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum, the extent to which large countries try to manipulate each other’s elections has become clear. This has also made it obvious that we should not be naive and that our elections must be hack-proof."
Logic and computer science
Journalists regularly call and email Jacobs to ask for comments on the latest developments in online security, but he is also one of the internationally leading scientists in his original field: logic and theoretical computer science. He obtained two Master’s degrees from Radboud University – in mathematics and philosophy – in 1987-88, and he obtained his doctorate based on research into theoretical computer science in 1991. Jacobs published two reference books in this field that have since become standard works.
In 2012, Jacobs received a €2.5 million ERC Advanced Grant, a prestigious research grant for the best researchers in Europe, for research into quantum computation, logic and security. Quantum logic is fundamentally different from ‘normal’ logic and is probabilistic in nature. It is precisely this probabilistic reasoning that is essential to all kinds of new developments, not only in security but also in artificial intelligence.
Cyber security in society
His broad knowledge of both theory and practice leads governments and other organisations to frequently seek his advice. For example, he is a member of the knowledge network set up by CTIVD (Review Committee on the Intelligence and Security Services) which investigates whether the secret services in the Netherlands are acting lawfully. In 2020, he was a member of the committee evaluating the Intelligence and Security Services Act (Jones-Bos committee). Jacobs has also been a member of the Cyber Security Council, which advises the cabinet on cyber security issues, since its inception. For a long time he was associated with the digital rights movement Bits of Freedom, including as chair of its Advisory Council.
Jacobs advocates for substantial investments in cyber security, for the protection of our economy and society, and for European geopolitical autonomy. In 2017, he told Follow the Money: “I’m not really blown away by the amount that the cabinet is now making available, with not a penny of that €26 million going to education and research! It remains with defence, police and intelligence services. Germany and England are investing much more, explicitly also in knowledge. I notice in my academic environment that people receive invitations to come and work in those countries. That’s a real problem for the Netherlands, certainly in the longer term.”
The Cyber Security Council, of which Jacobs is a member, published the report Integral Cyber Resilience in 2021. That report extensively substantiated the (increased) urgency of the topic and the need for far-reaching Dutch investments. The report advocates a substantial investment of more than €800 million for the coming cabinet term.
Together with close colleague Prof. Tamar Sharon, Jacobs is a founder of the Interdisciplinary Hub for Security, Privacy and Data Governance (iHub) at Radboud University. This interdisciplinary research group brings together the humanities, social sciences, law and natural sciences to investigate the influence of digital technology on our lives. From health to politics to our laws to new ways of behaving, technology now plays a vital role in every layer of society, with public values being subject to change, or even under pressure.
According to Jacobs, interdisciplinary research is essential to properly understanding all these different consequences. iHub not only identifies the consequences and effects of digitisation, but also actively searches for solutions and space for value-driven improvement with its own designs. Within iHub, active collaboration between young and experienced researchers is supported and there is ample space for different research methods. The ultimate goal: to have a positive impact on digital society. The Stevin Prize can be seen as support for this broad approach.
Jacobs is convinced that the digital world has deeply penetrated our lives, but there are still many uncertainties for ordinary users. How do we keep our digital personal details protected in a world in which both governments and the business community fail to do enough to protect that data or, even worse, in which it is the practice of large players to collect as much personal data as possible in order to manipulate people, commercially or politically? In 2014, Jacobs and the Digital Security research group developed ‘IRMA’ for secure and privacy-friendly login.
IRMA is a transparent (open source) app that allows users to log in online in a privacy-friendly and secure manner, by revealing minimal data about themselves. For example, IRMA allows you to prove that you are over 18 without revealing anything else about yourself. This prevents the user from leaving a trail of sensitive personal data with each new profile registration.
In 2016, IRMA was transferred outside the university to the Privacy by Design Foundation, of which Jacobs is the (honorary) chair. Together with SIDN from Arnhem, the manager of the .nl domain, the foundation is now rolling out IRMA in the Netherlands. Almost 50,000 people have the app worldwide, but mainly in the Netherlands. IRMA is being used in more and more places, especially now in the healthcare sector. Many of the ideas behind IRMA were recently adopted by the European Commission for the development of a new European identity wallet.
Publications, prizes and other work
Jacobs has been a professor at Radboud University since 2002. During that time, he has received several prestigious awards, received grants and fulfilled notable roles. He is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (KHMW) and the Academia Europaea. In 2012, he received the Huibregtsen Prize for his research into digital security, and he was knighted as an Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau. In 2018, he received the Brouwer Prize for Science and Society.