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There’s more to it, Dr Marshall!


On 3 June 2021, Dr Larry Marshall, CEO of CSIRO, gave evidence in an Estimates hearing in the Australian Senate. The official transcript is available from the Australian Parliament’s web site. Senator Chisholm asked a number of questions regarding CSIRO’s decision to abandon the Trustworthy Systems Group (TS), one of them Dr Marshall took on notice. The answer was published last week (Question 71), so I thought I might do a little bit of fact checking.

Dr Marshall’s oral evidence

Referring to an article in InnovationAus, Sen Chisholm asked about Data61’s job cuts in general, and then starts homing in on TS:

Why has CSIRO announced it will discontinue funding for the world-leading Trustworthy Systems team?

To which Dr Marshall replied:

I thought that was what you were referring to earlier. This is the team that developed the seL4 kernel, which is a microkernel that’s very good for security of mobile phones. That breakthrough was made back in the early 2000s by NICTA and UNSW. The team that you’re referring to is actually on campus at UNSW in Kensington. Unfortunately, that technology was licensed to I think Qualcomm—don’t hold me to that—for a one-time fee. I say ‘unfortunately’ because that technology has gone through two billion mobile devices. Unfortunately, there was no ongoing royalty arrangement with the deal that was done at that time. NICTA did spin out a company to try to commercialise that technology—OK Labs—but it closed its doors in 2012. The NICTA team continued to develop the seL4 kernel from about 2009. When we acquired NICTA we continued to work with them.

Not everything here is correct. In particular, seL4 has no more to do with mobile phones than with autonomous aircraft, autonomous cars, medical devices, critical infrastructure protection, defence systems – it’s used in all of these. Dr Marshall confuses seL4 with the earlier L4 kernel that became OKL4, which we last touched in research in 2006, and which ended up on billions of Qualcomm chips and iOS devices.

And the comment about a breakthrough in the early 2000s? This sounds to me like he’s trying to say “these guys did some great work 20 years ago but not much since.” Such an implication would be blatantly wrong. Our first breakthrough was the verification of seL4 in 2009, the first proof of implementation correctness of an operating system, something people had been trying for 30 years. But that was not the end of it: We followed it up with further world-firsts: proving that seL4 enforces integrity and availability, later proving that it enforces confidentiality, extending the correctness proofs to the binary code (no longer having to trust the compiler), and the first sound and complete worst-case execution-time analysis of a protected-mode operating system. And our latest flagship project, time protection, presents a principled, systematic approach for preventing information leakage through timing channels – a serious real-world problem almost everyone puts into the too-hard basket or tries to combat with patches and workarounds. While only at the beginning, this project has already won three Best Paper awards. I’m yet to see any project in Data61 that is comparable in ambition and potential real-world impact, yet credible given the track record of the people behind it. So any implication that we’re resting on our laurels is just plain BS.

But maybe I’m just paranoid and he didn’t mean to say what can be read into his statement. Besides, we can’t reasonably expect Dr Marshall to be on top of all the detail of what’s going on in Data61, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Dr Marshall continues:

There is a challenge with that technology. It’s very mature and it’s open source, so it’s difficult to see an opportunity to build an industry in Australia or to derive a national benefit from that technology. Given our priority is artificial intelligence, we chose to pursue that and focus our resources where we thought we could derive greater national benefit.

Very mature? Well, it’s mature enough to be deployed in real-world systems, but that does not mean there is no research left – to the contrary, as I had pointed out in a recent blog. It’s as if solid-state electronics was considered “mature” and no longer in need of research once the first transistor radio shipped. We wouldn’t have laptops or mobile phones with that attitude.

The argument that because it’s open source “it’s difficult to see an opportunity to build an industry in Australia or to derive a national benefit from that technology” is outright bogus. We’re building up an ecosystem around seL4 that has already delivered a lot of economic impact, including multiple new companies, development for Australian defence, and projects using seL4 to protect Australia’s critical infrastructure. In fact, CSIRO’s abandoning of seL4 is particularly stunning given that less than two weeks earlier, Home Affairs Department secretary Mike Pezzullo was quoted in the media with truly alarming statements about threats to Australia’s critical infrastructure. seL4 is the best foundation for providing strong protections here – how can investing in it not further the national benefit? I find that statement truly mind-boggling. Can CSIRO management really be that oblivious to the power of its own technology?

Sen Chisholm:

Are there any outstanding contracts requiring the ongoing services of that team?

Dr Marshall:

That team has a number of contracts, which is good, because it made it easier for UNSW to work with them based on that external revenue. It would be great if they continued to do that and even better if they were able to figure out how to create a company around that. That would be a great outcome. Our conclusion was that that’s not really feasible in Australia, which is why we chose to discontinue the work.

Now this is where we’re getting into dangerous territory as far as the truth is concerned. For one, Data61 told contract partners:

Data61 is committed to deliver to our partners, such as [company], especially on current projects and any work-in-progress. [1]

Note, this was before UNSW stepped in to rescue the team! Without UNSW’s action, the team would be gone by now, and the delivery on the contracts simply impossible, as CSIRO has no-one else familiar enough with the technology. Which raises an interesting legal question: How can a team be declared redundant, when it is needed to deliver on commitments to funding partners? But I digress.

It is worth noting that Dr Marshall offers two reasons why Trustworthy Systems and the seL4 technology was abandoned: (1) it’s not AI (true, but see below…) and (2) you can’t turn it into a startup. The second one is rather curious: if the ability to become a startup is a necessary condition for research in Data61, then they’ll have shut down most of the joint. While TS does not have to be shy about its economic impact, there’s not a lot in Data61 that can match it. But then, measuring economic impact isn’t easy and I’m not an economist. I’ll leave this point for another day.

However, Sen Chisholm homes in on reason (1):

Okay. AI has been identified as a sector that is going to be really important in autonomous cars and so forth. What funding is being directed to ensuring that we have a system that’s safe from hackers and is robust, I suppose, in its use?

CSIRO takes this question on notice.

CSIRO’s written answer

CSIRO’s response has just been published. I quote it in full:

Artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity are growing areas of investment and collaboration for CSIRO, with a specific focus on the use of AI to protect against cyber-attacks as well as mitigating against new forms of AI-enabled cyber-attacks.

Work to ensure security of systems is an integral part of larger CSIRO projects. Thus, it is not possible to provide accurate funding figures for this specific area. CSIRO projects of relevance include:

1) cutting edge machine learning and AI technologies to generate realistic computer systems and assets for the purposes of deceiving intruders

2) advanced AI-driven anti-phishing techniques to defend systems from social engineering or advanced AI-driven phishing attacks

3) technologies for detecting vulnerabilities in AI systems and software applications, and corresponding countermeasures

4) advanced technologies to make security solutions usable/human-centric, combining the benefits of AI and human intelligence

5) advanced AI-driven solutions for preserving data privacy

6) advanced methods to detect fake news and protect social media users using AI

7) advanced techniques to increase the trustworthiness of AI systems

8) AI and cybersecurity projects in partnership with Defence Science and Technology under the Next Generation Technologies Fund to realise new capabilities to support Australia’s Defence.

[Note that CSIRO’s response has a list of bullet-point items here, I numbered them for easier reference.]

The astute reader will notice that this does not actually answer Sen Chisholm’s question at all when he talks about protecting autonomous cars! At best items (3) and (7) are loosely related, the others are utterly irrelevant to the question.

How does this relate to seL4?

What Dr Marshall did not say is that seL4 is not only obviously useful for protecting AI systems, but is actually being deployed in many places for exactly that purpose. I give a number of examples.

DARPA: In the DARPA HACMS program we worked with project partners on protecting a military autonomous helicopter from cyber attacks – successfully. We are presently participating in DARPA’s successor program CASE, which is about scaling up the technology and is still centered around autonomous aircraft. And just for the record (so Dr Marshall cannot claim that this is about aircraft, while Sen Chisholm asked about cars): In HACMS, seL4 also secured autonomous army trucks – successfully.

Autonomous passenger cars: But it’s not just the military, the automotive industry is also recognising that seL4 is the best technology for protecting autonomous vehicles from cyber attacks.

  • In my previous blog I quoted Dr Daniel Potts of of autonomous driving company Ghost Locomotion. Ghost is a member of the seL4 Foundation, because they think that the seL4 technology is required for keeping the AI system secure. “Investing in AI research without investing [in] trustworthy systems research will greatly diminish the impact and applicability of AI to real-world products“, he said.
  • seL4 Foundation member Li Auto, makers of premium electric cars, say: “Li Auto’s team will develop a secure highly extensible real-time open platform for next generation self-driving vehicles based on the micro-kernel OS seL4. The platform will enable an ecosystem for third party application developers.
  • seL4 Foundation member NIO, also a premium electric-car maker, says: “The Digital Systems department at NIO is missioned to develop the most advanced software platform for the next-generation autonomous driving vehicles in the industry from the ground up. This platform is internally named NIO Vehicle Operating System (NVOS) and based off seL4.
  • And Horizon Robotics, also a member of the seL4 Foundation, calls themselves a “a global leader in the development of artificial intelligence computing platforms.” And they go on to state: “To address the challenges of safety, security and realtime in autonomous software, a fundamental high quality state-of-the-art microkernel is needed. We are looking forward to working with members of seL4 Foundation to build mixed-critical platform and solution for next-generation autonomous driving vehicles.

The last three quotes can all be found on the seL4 news page.

So, when it’s about protecting AI systems from cyber-attacks, industry goes for seL4. The very technology CSIRO thinks is not relevant to their agenda.

An honest mistake?

Maybe Dr Marshall didn’t know that when he gave his evidence to the Senate?

Quite possible he didn’t know at the time he appeared before the Senate, he cannot be expected to know everything that’s going on in CSIRO. But he definitely knew by the time he signed off on CSIRO’s answer to the question on notice.

How do I know?

I told him. In an email to Dr Marshall I said:

I can help you with [the answer to Sen Chisholm’s question]: this funding has just been dramatically slashed. seL4 and the rest of the Trustworthy Systems (TS) technology is proven to protect autonomous vehicles from cyber attacks, ever since the DARPA HACMS program demonstrated four years it could thwart such attacks against an autonomous helicopter and autonomous army trucks (see Since then, TS technology is being designed into military as well as civilian autonomous vehicles. (Besides a lot of other uses, such as secure communication devices, including those built by Canberra-based Penten and in daily use in the Australian Army.)

[Note that the link in the quote may no longer work by the time you click on it, due to our web site migrating to UNSW. The new link is]

Dr Marshall acknowledged that email. So he cannot pretend he didn’t know.

In the same email I also challenged his comments on startups:

I also found your claim that TS couldn’t be turned into a startup to be quite misleading, given that it has already generated multiple startups, the latest only a few weeks ago.

I’m looking forward to reading your explanation/clarification in the Hansard, and am happy to provide more detail as needed.

He obviously passed on the opportunity to set the facts straight.


There’s clearly more to the story than Dr Marshall and CSIRO said in their answers to Sen Chisholm.

Does that constitute misleading parliament? I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer. But I wonder what Sen Chisholm thinks.

And I never thought I had to fact-check our national science agency. Not fact-checking the science, “just” the management. Still, truly saddening.

Stay tuned for more fact-checking of CSIRO’s communication about the abandoning of Trustworthy Systems.

[1] Just so no-one can claim I am revealing sensitive CSIRO internals: This information about CSIRO promises made to project partners came to me from third parties to my UNSW address, unencumbered by non-disclosure agreements.

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