Air Force, Intel take a crack at malware market

Air Force Academy’s Center for Innovation

FCW recently visited the Air Force Academy’s Center of Innovation, where a team of researchers is trying to take large swaths of malware off the market with the help of Intel Corp. (Photo: Sean Lyngaas)

Lt. Col. Greg Bennett thinks he has found a research gold mine in the mountains of Colorado. His research center at the Air Force Academy is working with Intel Corp. to take large swaths of malware off the market, and is hoping to strike an R&D deal with Google soon.

The collaboration is designed to tap into deep private-sector pocketbooks at a time of relative austerity for the Defense Department. By involving U.S. officials early in the research process, the partnerships could help the government "close the adoption cycle on IT," perhaps "from four generations … to two generations behind" the private sector, Bennett said in a recent interview at the academy.

Bennett is deputy director of the academy's Center of Innovation, a Department of Homeland Security-led research lab whose goal, an official flyer states, is "to find ways to speed government access to innovation, turning the acquisitions process on its head."

The center's director is Terry Pierce, a retired Navy captain who advises DHS's Science and Technology Directorate on "disruptive innovation." And disruption could well be the center's mantra. There is "tremendous horsepower in the private sector in intellect and innovation that is very, very difficult to enable in the government space," Bennett said. But the sharp-chinned lieutenant colonel wants to do just that.

Within the center is an "anti-malware lab" led by Intel researcher Jason Upchurch. Funding for that project comes from DHS's National Protection and Programs Directorate, the division charged with defending federal civilian computer networks.

"Indirectly, what [Upchurch] is trying to do is change the malware economy" by developing security signatures to target larger sets of malware, Bennett said. He added that algorithms developed by Upchurch are helping analyze malware related to x86-based computer processing.

That forensic work could be applied to specific malware that has targeted federal agencies. U.S. officials have expressed interest in using the lab to analyze high-profile cyberattacks, Bennett said.

Ballooning dreams

Bennett hopes the research center's partnership with Intel will lead to others with private-sector IT giants. That might depend on replicating an intellectual property agreement with Intel that, according to Upchurch, eased government requirements on retaining control of IP in research.

Bennett said he hopes to strike an R&D deal with Google next month that might include sending Air Force cadets to Google for summer internships, as they do now with Intel. He also likes the search-engine leviathan's ability to rapidly scale its services. Google's "development model comes with a billion people in mind," he said. "And so, from a government perspective, if I can take capabilities that they have and be able to introduce things, you can scale and collapse virtually instantaneously for different resourcing."

The lieutenant colonel is especially keen on Google's ability to create wireless networks using balloons. Such a technology offers a good opportunity for "multi-agency buy-in," he said, in that first responders at DHS could use the balloons to set up networks for disaster relief, while DOD could use them to establish communications in conflict zones without risking soldiers' lives.

The Science and Technology Directorate puts about $200,000 annually toward the research center, according to S&T spokesman John Verrico. While Bennett declined to disclose how much DOD chips in, he echoed the refrain of many a federal IT manager today: How do I do more with fewer dollars?

"Thirty years ago, the government had tons and tons of disposable income … to spend on research," he said. No longer; cybersecurity is one of the few fields to see DOD budget increases in recent years. Yet the private sector is still "far outpacing" government in investing in R&D for IT, Bennett said.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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