Securely sharing the right information at the right time (Under the Radar #2!)

May 10, 2021

Want to know what goes on Under The Radar at one of the biggest high-tech companies in the world? This is the interview series for you… Below you'll find part 2, featuring Mike Balm, our Director New Business & Digital Transformation!

What do the Eurovision Song Contest and a printed circuit board factory have in common? Whether it’s pulling off the largest musical event on the planet or assembling high-tech computer boards, neither can be done effectively any more without a digital platform to securely share operational data between all people involved. Mike Balm and his digital transformation team at Thales are there to help set it up.

The Zwarte Cross is the largest paid festival in the Netherlands, with an estimated 220,000 fans in attendance. To control this crowd, the event organisers hire a security crew to patrol the festival grounds and coordinate with emergency services outside the gates. It’s of vital importance – sometimes literally, in the event of emergencies – to regulate the flow of information between all parties in such a way that everyone involved is able to perform their duties in bringing the event to a successful conclusion.

“To streamline the collaboration at the Zwarte Cross, we built a platform connecting all stakeholders on a need-to-know basis,” says Mike Balm from Thales. “Everyone has a dashboard showing exactly the information they need to do their work at any given moment. For example, the security crew can see their own positions, but not the location of the police – until there’s an emergency in which they require the help of law enforcement, at which point this information is automatically made available to them. The Zwarte Cross was our maiden voyage, after which we developed the platform into a fully-fledged service offering, called Secured Sharing.”

Balm is one of what Thales calls its digital champions. Together with his team in Hengelo, he’s powering digital transformation, both inside the company and outside, for customers. “We’re working with several key focal points. One is end-user functionality – shifting focus from the product to what the end-user really wants. Cybersecurity is very important as well, crucial even, as information is increasingly being digitally shared between parties. Other focal points include doing more in the cloud and being more service-oriented.”

Highly agile

Within Thales, Balm and his team are leading the push from digitisation to digitalisation. “We’ve made the transition from paper to bits and bytes. We’ve deployed all kinds of digital systems to make our work easier, for enterprise resource planning, as well as the management of customer relationships and product lifecycles. Unfortunately, they all generated spreadsheets – we were running on Excel. But we don’t want columns with raw data; we want dashboards with insightful graphs. We don’t want everyone using their own spreadsheets; we want an interlinked system based on a single source of truth. When a product is ready to leave our factory, we want fully automated processes to have taken care of the customs documents and all the other necessary paperwork.”

Speaking of factories, Balm is adamant about boosting efficiency there, too. “Our manufacturing operations weren’t nearly as high tech as the products they make. There was a lot of room for improvement. For example, we have our own printed circuit board factory, including our own cleanroom. They used to write everything down on paper – the temperatures of the chemical baths, everything. There’s much to gain by automating the data collection and analysis. Instead of cleaning those chemical baths at the same time each week, we could tune the intervals to the live measurement data. Using Internet-of-Things technology, we’re working hard to make Industry 4.0 a reality there.”

In tackling the digitalisation challenges, Balm’s team is leveraging super-agility and extensive user experience (UX) expertise. “With our UX specialists, we’re taking a deep dive into the organisation. By comparing our current way of working to how we envision it in the future, we’re uncovering all kinds of bottlenecks. To solve them, we take a highly agile, highly incremental approach, which starts with building a minimum viable product in two weeks, using a low-code platform like Mendix.”

Triply secured

As well as guiding the digital transformation within Thales, Balm is heading the further rollout of the Secured Sharing service to external customers, such as the Netherlands Coastguard. “The coastguard is responsible for everything that happens at sea, including shipping and fishery. It’s a compound organisation, calling on the resources and services of the navy and the police, for example. This requires a lot of coordination, on a need-to-know basis. The coastguard can be involved in a black-ops operation in which a police patrol ship is sailing under the radar to intercept drug traffickers, but when one of the policemen falls overboard, the context changes from security to safety and all the stops are pulled out to rescue him. The sharing of information has to dynamically change with the situation – which is where our platform comes in.”

The Secured Sharing service creates what is known as an information hub that allows very precise control of who gets to see what and when. Balm: “Our platform integrates all the data sources in an organisation. The information you don’t want to share stays in a classified environment; what you do want to make available goes into a shared space, with each component encrypted separately. You decide who has access to which pieces of information, and for how long, by distributing specific decryption keys to specific hub members for specific time slots. You can also specify how this access changes when the context changes, i.e. what digital doors to open in the event of an emergency.”

Balm explains that information hubs can be implemented in one of three ways. “The first is locally, in which case the customer places a dedicated server on the edge of his network, separated from the other computers by a firewall. The second is on our premises, completely under the customer’s control and totally inaccessible to us. The third is in the cloud, hosted by Microsoft in Amsterdam. In each setup, the information on the server can be accessed using a standard web browser, but the connection is triply secured: through a VPN tunnel, authentications and a browser extension running browser-level encryption. When hosted by us, we provide additional security through our Security Operations Centre.”

Tour de force

Other users include the Royal Netherlands Air Force and the International Zone in The Hague, home to Europol, the International Court of Justice, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and soon several embassies as well. “The Dutch air force wants to improve its collaboration with local authorities. Using our platform, it’s moving from a highly classified, air-gapped network to an information-centric ecosystem with bi-directional sharing of intelligence. This enables it to respond much more rapidly when its assistance is required,” Balm points out. “The International Zone uses our platform to coordinate its security efforts.”

Since being used at the Zwarte Cross, the Secured Sharing service has also been deployed at several other major public events. “We’ve done the Tour de France, connecting twenty different parties and sharing sensitive safety and security information, among other things. We were set to do the Giro d’Italia, which was to visit the Netherlands last year, and the Eurovision Song Contest in Rotterdam – until they got cancelled due to corona. Eurovision in particular would have been a real tour de force: coordinating all the logistics and massive crowd movements to and from the venue, whilst monitoring social media for potential security threats.”

“These use cases all boil down to the same thing,” Balm concludes. “They involve connecting multiple stakeholders and their wide variety of information sources in such a way that they can work together on a need-to-know basis. We’ve built a platform that enables exactly this and that can be expanded to different markets.”

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