University projects to secure cyberspace could soon bear fruit

Five-year program funded by Northrop Grumman researching new technologies

A number of university cybersecurity research programs funded by Northrop Grumman are expected to begin paying off in new technologies soon, researchers said June 1.

“I think we have the potential to see some of these fielded in the next year or two,” said Robert F. Brammer, CTO of Northrop Grumman Information Systems.

Projects nearing fruition at Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University include techniques to make infrastructure security more cost-effective, reducing the time and expense of software assurance testing and making clouds more secure.


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They are among 13 research projects being conducted under the Cybersecurity Research Consortium announced 18 months ago in Washington by Northrop Grumman. Company and university officials returned to Washington with a progress report on efforts to advance the state of cybersecurity in an increasingly online world.

Brammer said that the company would not necessarily hold property rights to the discoveries or inventions, but that it wanted to be able to transfer the results to its government customers. He said the consortium has so far produced a “strong social network” for research and is moving some promising projects to large-scale testing in cyber ranges operated in Maryland and the United Kingdom.

“The cyber threat is increasing in scope and significance,” Brammer said, with the rapid expansion in the last 18 months of the use of mobile devices and the emergence of new classes of Advanced Persistent Threats and cyberweapons such as the Stuxnet worm. Brammer called Stuxnet, the first malware to specifically threaten physical control systems, “an early indication of the potential for future industrial espionage and cyberattacks.”

Northrop Grumman might well be the latest in a series of defense contractors to be targeted for attack by hackers using information stolen earlier this year from EMC’s RSA Security division. Fox News is reporting that the company on May 26 shut down remote access to its network. Lockheed Martin and L-3 Communications in May and April suffered attacks through their remote access systems.

Northrop Grumman officials declined to comment about any specific attacks during the press briefing.

The consortium is an effort to fund research in forward-looking technologies rather than to respond to the latest attacks.

“We’re trying as hard as we can to stay ahead of the game,” Brammer said.

That is a significant challenge, the university officials said.

“Keeping good guys ahead of the curve is a difficult proposition,” said Richard Power, director of strategic communications for Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab.

Eugene Spafford, a professor of computer science at Purdue and executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security, said he is “a little pessimistic” about the current state of cybersecurity.

“Not enough is being done to address future needs and blue-sky research,” he said. He called the rush to move all resources and transactions online and to move computing to the cloud “ill advised,” because security has not kept pace with functionality.

The educators brushed aside concerns about tying their work too closely to a large defense contractor.

“The Internet itself is a product of the military-industrial complex,” Power said.

Ronald L. Rivest, computer science professor at MIT, said that any system could be compromised, and that collaboration between industry and academia is necessary to address cybersecurity issues.

Spafford said neither Northrop Grumman nor its Defense Department customers have directed research efforts.

“There has been very little influence on the choice of work,” he said. “No effort has been made to control how we go about publishing information, who we can share it with and how we can deploy it. We are not working for Northrop Grumman; we are working in partnership with them.”

The 13 research programs now ongoing are:

At Carnegie Mellon:

  • Network Denial-of-Service defense mechanisms.
  • Detection mechanisms for integrity attacks on sensing and control software systems.
  • Minimizing the attack window for exploitable bugs.
  • Adaptive strategies for cross-layer attacks and defense in wireless systems.
  • Isolated execution of code on mobile devices.

At MIT:

  • Recovering system integrity using selective re-execution.
  • Secure and dependable systems by design.
  • Secure audit trails.
  • Trusted cloud storage with reconfigurable hardware.

At Purdue:

  • Secure configuration of intrusion detection sensors for enterprise systems.
  • Partitioning network experiments for the cyber-range.
  • Binary-based data structure reverse engineering on malicious code.
  • Watermarking and provenance of data streams. 

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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