[ISN] Pointillist Protection
isn at c4i.org
Fri Nov 26 01:15:39 EST 2004
Future Watch by Matt Hamblen
NOVEMBER 22, 2004
Carnegie Mellon University is researching some of the biggest
challenges in computer security, data availability and systems
reliability through a year-old interdisciplinary program known as
Funded with federal dollars and contributions from 40 private
companies, CyLab brings together graduate students and 30 professors,
mostly in computer sciences, to work in teams on a wide range of
For example, in September, Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon won a $6.4
million grant from the National Science Foundation for an initiative
called Security Through Interaction Modeling (STIM), which studies
complex interactions between people, the computers they use and
attacks from the outside. STIM will explore means of improving
computer defenses by incorporating the models' behaviors into the
Another CyLab project takes the name of the French impressionist
painter Georges Seurat, who painted vast canvasses with many tiny
dabs, or "points," of paint, a process dubbed pointillism. The Seurat
team at CyLab is developing methods to monitor anomalous behavior that
may be induced by buffer overloads and other glitches. The Seurat
technique compares a precomputed profile of how a system should be
performing to the combination of all the application interactions with
the operating system. "So it looks at a profile of what this system
should be doing and says maybe this thing has been corrupted,"
explains Mike Reiter, technical director of CyLab and a professor of
computer engineering and science. "It can track accesses and changes
across many machines all at once or in a short time period."
The Seurat project is so named because there are many layers, points
or places where one might measure what is going on in a system in
order to see evidence of an attack, much the same way the 19th century
painter discovered that what we see comprises many points of color and
The Seurat technique is a broad-brush approach to security, and
indeed, the overall scope of CyLab's $10 million annual research
mission is broad, says Pradeep Khosla, dean of the Carnegie Mellon
College of Engineering and co-director of CyLab.
"We want a world where we can push measurable, sustainable, secure,
trustworthy and available data," explains Khosla. He says CyLab will
attempt to help reduce the number of bugs in software, for example.
Khosla estimates that for every dollar spent on computer hardware and
software, it takes $6 to $8 in personnel costs to maintain it. For
that reason, vulnerability analysis is part of the CyLab program as
well as malicious code detection.
But even more basic, several projects at CyLab are devoted to creating
self-healing systems that can survive malicious attacks, Khosla says.
"We know attacks exist, so you can either build a system that survives
the attack or find a way to stop the attack," Khosla says. "But trying
to find a way to stop attacks is akin to saying, 'I'll kill all the
bacteria and viruses out there.' Instead, we are going to find a way
to live with worms and attacks with self-healing."
CyLab's immediate work on self-healing is a project called Self *
Storage System, which researchers are about to demonstrate to the U.S.
Army and will show publicly in six months or so. The idea is that
there is no single point of failure in a system, especially storage,
so if a piece of information is corrupted, the system can quickly
determine that and automatically set itself back to its original
state. The system survives the attack without actually finding a way
to prevent it, Khosla explains.
Reiter says Self * Storage is also about improving management of
large-scale storage systems in a process some call autonomic
Cell Phone Remote Control
Another vision at CyLab is to use smart phones as ubiquitous access
control devices. It is an idea that mobile phone companies have
already implemented, but CyLab is working on new approaches to making
that vision very scalable.
As a hypothetical example, Reiter cites the intrepid business traveler
flying halfway around the world and using his cell phone as a key to
open his hotel room door. The idea goes far beyond promoting a single
standard and instead involves what Reiter calls a "flexible
access-control network which allows new policies to be introduced into
a system to permit devices to work."
The traveler would have his credentials transferred to the hotel from
his phone by Bluetooth or ultrawideband technology, with a hotel room
digital key transferred back to reside on the phone.
There would be no problem if the phone was stolen, because it would
authenticate the user by PIN or thumbprint before revealing the key.
Using its WAN capabilities, the phone would request permission from a
remote server, perhaps at the traveler's place of employment, which
wouldn't know the key but could authenticate the traveler based on the
PIN or thumbprint. Once clearance was granted, the phone would be
allowed to complete the computation of the cryptographic key to allow
the traveler to get some sleep.
Reiter says CyLab is starting to demonstrate this capability and will
move forward with the opening this winter of the Collaborative
Innovation Center, a facility in which researchers will be able to
control building functions using smart phones.
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