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Cybersecurity Research Consortium: New Tech on the Way

An 18-month-old cybersecurity research consortium organized by Northrop Grumman is making progress and should have technologies ready to deploy in about a year, officials said Wednesday.

The Northrop Grumman Cybersecurity Research Consortium, a five-year partnership between the defense contractor and three leading computer science universities, has focused on improving mobile and cloud security and on reducing the cost of recovery from cyberattacks, said Robert Brammer, vice president of advanced technology and CTO at Northrop Grumman Information Systems.

The consortium is an important way for university researchers to tackle long-term issues, not just respond to recent attacks, participants said. "There is no silver bullet here," said Ronald Rivest, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We must aim for steady progress here, not perfection."

Cloud computing has been a high priority for the consortium and for Northrop Grumman customers, Brammer said during a press conference to update the consortium's work. The consortium members, also including Carnegie Mellon University and Purdue University, have been researching how to use low-cost processors to perform specialized encryption tasks in a cloud environment and on digital watermarking technologies as a way to establish the integrity of data, he said.

"These projects have shown the ability in a lab environment to withstand various types of cloud cyberattacks," Brammer said. "We're beginning to test these techniques on larger scale [environments]."

Another research area is focused on infrastructure security, with one project working to optimize the configuration and location of security sensors on computer networks. "Our customers are all interested in reducing the fraction of their IT spending on infrastructure so that they can increase the fraction spent on mission-critical capabilities," Brammer said. "The key question here is, given a certain budget for things like firewalls, intrusion detection systems and prevention systems, how do you get the most bang for your buck?"

The sensor research is looking at ways to place sensors in a network "so you don't slow it down, you don't generate too many false alarms, and you don't have to spend too much on sensors," added Eugene Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue.

One of MIT's research projects is focusing on ways to recover from attacks by returning a computer to a recently clean state, Rivest said. MIT's research is attempting to pinpoint the changes made to a computer's files by malware, then restore them, without discarding legitimate changes made, he said.

"Many machines are compromised daily," he said. "Cleaning up after these inevitable compromises leads to days of wasted effort by either the end users or by systems administrators."

The MIT project seeks to automate system restoration by recording a computer's history and rolling back any changes caused by an attack, he said. MIT researchers have tested the automated system on Linux and found that it can "effectively recover from a number of real-world and synthetic attacks," Rivest said.

In some cases, Northrop Grumman will use the consortium's research in its customers' networks. The universities are also free to seek other ways to commercialize research that they've done in-house, Spafford said.

Asked how they viewed trends in cybersecurity, the experts gave guarded responses. Spafford said he's grown more pessimistic over time about cybersecurity, although there are several "bright spots."

"The pressure for the economics of moving things online is overwhelming common sense," he said. "Too many things are being put online."

Some cloud computing moves are "ill-advised," he added.

More industrial control systems are becoming connected to the Internet, said Richard Power, director of strategic communications at CyLab at Carnegie Mellon. "Everything's running on off-the-shelf software," he said. The electrical grid's growing connection to the Internet "has moved forward for performance, it's moved forward for convenience. It's moved forward in many different ways, but not in terms of security."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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