Researchers turn to nature to fight cyberattacks

A team of computer science researchers is taking cues from nature to address one of the nation’s most urgent threats: cyberattacks.  

Research from 2011 shows that cyberattacks on government network systems increased almost 40 percent, and experts have declared digital intrusions as one of the top national security concerns.

The Wake Forest University faculty-student team’s effort to fight those threats is a recent contribution in a growing movement of bio-research. Computer science professor Errin Fulp and graduate student Michael Crouse are polishing a genetically inspired algorithm that could be used in any large computer infrastructure, including cluster computing.

The algorithm proactively seeks out more secure computer configurations by using the concept of "survival of the fittest." Early simulations have shown the increased diversity of each device's configuration boosts network safety, and Fulp said the goal is to create a moving-target defense that quickly detects threats.

The research initiative is funded by a one-year grant from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Over the next few months, the team will test its work but for now, “it looks very promising,” Fulp said.

“We have a prototype up and running and we’ve been testing performance and how to scale it,” he said, adding that additional funding is needed take the project to the next level.

This is not the first time the team has turned to nature for inspiration. In one of their ongoing cybersecurity projects with PNNL, the team is training digital “ants" to unleash into the nation's power grid. When an ant discovers an intruder, other members of the colony spring to action to alert the IT administrator.

This sort of “swarming intelligence” is an efficient way to identify threats in a large computer infrastructure, Fulp said, but further development and work are needed before the ants can actually eliminate the intrusions.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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