[ISN] Pointillist Protection

InfoSec News 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 
research areas. 

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 
defenses themselves. 

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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