Meet the youngest ever engineering professor at Queen’s and a world leader in the fight against computer hackers
After winning another award last week for her ground-breaking cybersecurity research, the Belfast-based academic reveals to Una Brankin that her high-flying career was inspired by her maths teacher father and how she balances it all with family life
Queen’s University cybersecurity expert and inventor Professor Maire O’Neill grew up in Donegal with none of the technology we take for granted in today’s device-dominated world. But the family home in Glenties had one huge advantage over 99.9% of private residences to this day – it had its own electricity supply.
The award-winning academic’s late father John McLoone, a vice-principal and maths teacher at the local comprehensive school, created his personal hydro-electric system on the Owenea River, the first domestic power source of its kind in Ireland.
“We had no electricity bills, apart from when the river ran low, which wasn’t very often – we have a climate that suits hydro-electric power,” she says. “Dad was very scientifically minded and very good at woodwork and construction. It was nice having our own electricity.”
Inspired by her father Maire (40) grew up to make her own ground-breaking strides in electrical engineering, culminating last week with a grant of $30,000 in the second annual Blavatnik Awards in the UK.
The award for scientists under the age of 42 recognised her world class reputation for research and invention in the field of hardware security, in particular for her work developing attack-resilient computer hardware platforms and chip designs.
The youngest Irish Academy fellow and youngest ever engineering professor at Queen’s, Maire is also a UK Female Inventor of the Year and widely regarded as one of Europe’s leading cryptography experts, hailed for her invention of a high-speed silicon security chip that is used in more than 100 million TV set-top boxes.
Her triple academic posts make an impressive mouthful: Professor of Information Security in the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen’s; Principal Investigator at the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) at Queen’s, and director of the UK Research Institute in Secure Hardware and Embedded Systems (RISE) at CSIT.
The remarkable skills set behind these roles makes Mrs O’Neill’s work a major bane in the lives of unethical hackers and international cyber criminals, the shady types who can wreak havoc with computer systems and cause critical breaches of security, from theft and blackmail to industrial and military espionage.
In the context of information security, the battle against social engineering attacks – the psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information (phishing) – is a priority for the professor.
“I’ve met people who I’ve suspected of being hackers. They are certainly very, very clever,” she remarks. “They have an interesting lifestyle. They can make a lot of money at a young age, do a little bit of hacking for a short while, then go on long holidays.
“All smart devices are vulnerable. In my talks I refer to a controlled test on a smart talking doll which was hacked into, to record and then issue the household command for opening the remotely controlled front door of the house. The dolls also could be hacked to make them say anything to children, which is obviously not a great idea.”
Over the phone, it’s hard to place her accent. Her Donegal brogue has been blunted following her move to Belfast at 18 to study at Queen’s and by her extensive international travel for speaking engagements ever since.
“I’ve had to slow down and speak more clearly. I remember telling someone in China I was from Northern Ireland, and they said: ‘Oh, right, so you’re Scottish?'” she laughs.
“I’ve lost the local Glenties accent but people can usually hear a bit of the west in there somewhere. Glenties is still home – my mum is still there – but I always wanted to study and work in Belfast.
“I’m the youngest of five and my siblings had all chosen to study at Queen’s. I visited them a lot, so Belfast wasn’t strange to me. It isn’t a large city and a lot of the people I met had had childhood holidays in Donegal.
“I never encountered anything like sectarianism, but I remember finding it very strange to have to mark myself as an overseas student on a form for Queen’s. I didn’t cross any seas to get here!”
It was at the Department of Electronic Engineering that she met her future husband Shane O’Neill, from Omagh, who went into telecommunications after graduation. The couple married in 2004 and have three children – Aodhan (9), Niamh (6) and Eoin (2).
“The most challenging part of what I do is balancing work with a young family,” she admits. “I have to travel a lot to international conferences. Last year was particularly difficult, as I was selected as the director of the UK Research Institute for hardware security.
“I love to travel but I try to limit it as much as possible now. During the week, my husband has to pick up the slack. It’s easier when they’re at school. My brothers and sisters all live nearby. I’ve a sister in Dromore – she helps, but she has kids too, so it’s not easy.
“She took my three when we went to London for the Blavatnik Awards. In the middle of getting ready to go, I was sorting out costumes for the kids for International Book Day. I couldn’t manage without childcare but I enjoy my children. I love getting out for walks with them, away from all the screens and devices.”
Although Maire’s parents both worked outside the home (her mother as a postmistress), they had also kept a small sheep farm. Growing up surrounded by animals, Maire had always wanted to become a vet.
“I always helped dad out on the farm – the others weren’t interested,” she recalls. “I suppose I was a bit of a tomboy. I was obsessed with The Incredible Hulk and I had a T-shirt with him on it, which I wouldn’t take off.
“I remember I had to wear a dress for my brother’s first communion, but I insisted on having the T-shirt on underneath and in the photos you can see it clearly peeking out, especially in the sea of white dresses all around me on the day.
“So, I still wanted to be a vet when it came to applying for university, but when I got the UCCA forms, I realised I couldn’t study veterinary medicine in Belfast.
“It had to be Dublin or London, and that didn’t appeal to me.
“My two older brothers were doing electrical engineering at Queen’s and my sisters are doctors. I loved maths and computers and information technology at school, so I ended up applying for physics, medicine and engineering.”
Predictably, the majority of Maire’s classmates on her electrical engineering course were male. She hopes to help attract more girls to the field through her talks at schools, in which she references the late Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr (right), the inventor during the Second World War of the early building blocks for Bluetooth technology.
“The anti-jamming technology she came up with was very impressive at the time. She’s one of the historical female figures I talk to schools about, as someone to look up to,” she says.
“Often when I talk to schoolchildren, I find they haven’t ever considered electrical engineering. They don’t understand what it can lead to. Young girls tend to think of an engineer as a mechanic; they don’t associate engineering with computers and technology.
“I always have to explain the different opportunities that come from studying electrical engineering and how exciting it is to work with the latest technology, and how they can work to make a difference in people’s day-to-day lives. Device security affects all of society, all ages.”
As a scientist at the forefront of hardware innovation, she is acutely aware of the concerns over artificial intelligence replacing jobs and eroding traditional family life. In a world where smart devices can be used to remotely switch lights on and off, turn on ovens, put on kettles and open front doors, it isn’t much of a leap to see a future of smart homes in which everything will be network connected.
At home she faces the modern parents’ dilemma of trying to restrict children’s screen time.
“They have their Xboxes and so on, but they love Donegal and the freedom to roam outside, I’m glad to say,” she says. “My son, for his ninth birthday, wanted to climb a hill. At Christmas we climbed Slieve Gullion – that was fantastic.
“I like to escape the world of technology by going on holidays, turning off all devices and just enjoying nature. We are becoming increasingly dependent on technology, yes, and I understand the concerns about robots – artificial intelligence – taking over, but we have to use technology to improve society, and that can’t take place without human interaction. The human decision-making process cannot be replaced.”
Belfast now has 38 cyber security companies employing 1,200 people, and it is estimated that the industry in Northern Ireland is on course to generate salaries of £60m per annum. One of Maire’s aims is to create even more revenue and jobs in her field.
“I am one of the younger ones in my area. My career has advanced much quicker than I thought,” she concludes.
“I was in the right place at the right time, I’m fortunate.
“I try to stay one step ahead. Technology is always changing. I have to keep up with what’s happening. I’m always looking for vulnerabilities in devices and make them as safe as possible. My work has its challenges but it’s exciting.”