The Science of Cyber Security

TRUST aims to be proactive.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Imagine a large cyber-network with its own built-in “immune system,” one that can recognize and destroy foreign invaders, just like the human body.

“We no longer can afford to be reactive in our attitudes about cyber security,” says Shankar Sastry, dean of the college of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. “Our current approach is bolt-on, rather than built-in patches, bolted on, like an afterthought. We need to be proactive.”

Sastry is principal investigator and director of the Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology (TRUST), a UC Berkeley led group focused on developing cyber security science and technology aimed at radically transforming the ability of organizations to design, build, and operate trustworthy information systems for the nation’s critical infrastructure.

One of its long-term major goals is to build a solid science base upon which to develop an inherent cyber security defense system.  “We believe what is missing is the science of cyber security—-a science base, like the kind taught in medical schools, so as to enable doctors to treat and help patients,” Sastry says. “We want the legacy of TRUST to be the start of this science base, upon which an inherent defense system can be built that will operate almost like the body’s in the event of an attack.”

In recent years, enhancing cyber security has become a critically important issue with a growing sense of urgency. There has been an escalation in computer security attacks within the last decade, from so-called “phishing” scams that lure people into revealing sensitive and private information, to Internet attacks that crash popular websites.

Even worse, large-scale cyber attacks potentially could topple widespread systems, destabilizing national and economic security and paralyzing key resources, such as power and water. These can come from enemy foreign governments determined to attack U.S. networks, as well as from independent terrorist groups and hackers.  

“We’re not just talking about crashing the Internet and suspending trading,” Sastry says.  “This can cause serious danger to life and limb.”

The center is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Center based at Berkeley, with research partners at Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, San Jose State University, Stanford University and Vanderbilt University. There also are more than a dozen industry collaborators, including Intel, Cisco Systems, IBM, Symantec and Qualcomm.  NSF supports the center with about $40 million over ten years.    

The center has an ambitious research agenda to improve the state-of-the-art in cyber security, including the security of physical infrastructure, and preventing identity theft and privacy issues, especially with medical records. The center also is developing an education plan to teach the next generation of computer scientists, engineers and social scientists, as well as outreach programs to attract women and minorities in science and engineering.

Center researchers also are working on new technologies to combat phishing, spyware, botnets and other threats; and promoting legislation and policies to protect privacy. 

For example, TRUST researcher and UC Berkeley law professor Deirdre Mulligan worked on California legislation that requires companies to notify individuals whose private information might have been compromised as a result of company actions. The California security breach notification law is believed to be the first in the nation, and more than three dozen states have since passed similar laws, according to the center. 

TRUST’s recent policy work also is focusing on such issues as paths to identity theft, privacy in social networking and social media, and the use of web browser tracking technologies for targeted advertising.  The center is working on technical and policy solutions that address both business functionality and privacy, Sastry says. 

TRUST officials also have been advising lawmakers and regulators about the security and privacy aspects of proposed laws and policies.