Black Friday

DARPA fights back against cyber attacks

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

July 13, 2015

Cyber-attacks are pervasive, coming from all directions, and with no end or seeming solution in sight. The task of stopping these assaults has fallen to the agency largely credited with developing the Internet – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  Its aim is simple – to “put the attackers out of business.”

More than 50 years ago the Department of Defense charged DARPA with developing a system whereby the DoD could connect to and communicate with the Pentagon and the Strategic Air Command (SAC). From this effort sprung the nascent ARPANET– the technical core of which would become the Internet. It was, among other things, the first network to use the Internet Protocol (IP).

The timing of this offensive comes on the heels of many serious breaches in cybersecurity- damaging infrastructure in both the private and public domains. Retailers such as Target and Home Depot have seen their systems hacked, millions of card-holders put at risk, and major health insurers compromised by the stealing of sensitive patient data.

Who can forget the brew-ha-ha and fumbling of the corporate and government sectors, and the subsequent finger pointing over the notorious Sony hack?  Even the Office of Personnel management has not been impervious to infiltration, as witnessed by the recent attack which has compromised sensitive personnel information of millions of Americans.

So DARPA (dubbed the ’’Department of Mad Scientists”) is attempting to fix the problem. Its assessment thus far is that we are doing cyber security all wrong. It seems that waiting for an event to happen and reacting to the alarm bells (the present reaction) isn’t the way to go. What is needed, according to scientists, is a preemptive approach – a massive automated computer system which detects a problem before it happens, or at least immediately halts its spread.

This represents a change in direction from the one-dimensional defensive approach currently employed. Michael Walker, a DARPA program manager, explains,

“The computer security industry is basically a bunch of automated detectors set up to let us know when its time to call the cavalry-those people who can do the jobs computers can’t. And when we call in the cavalry, most of the time we’ve already lost.

The hackers are numerous and ubiquitous, and, unlike defenders which have to defend an entire system, an entire wall, the attackers need only identify a crack. So a scheme has been designed to level the playing field by encouraging greater participation in cyber security. To this end, it is fostering a competition called the Grand Cyber Challenge, and endowed it with a $2 million first prize.

With the task of finding a solution which would immediately cauterize the wound of a cyber-attack by staunching the blood flow immediately, DARPA has whittled the initial field of a hundred aspirants down to seven finalists who will compete next year.

Applicants range from academics at major university computer programs to well- known hackers, to defense industry experts. Included in this group are participants from Raytheon, a mammoth defense contractor, which has invested more than $3 billion into cyber security over the past decade. No stranger to defensive weaponry, it developed, among other things, the Patriot Missile system.

Raytheon is not being purely patriotic in its support for the project (of course!), as, with the ever encroaching prevalence of a computer driven future it see profits in the direction of cyber security. After all, one need only consider the Internet of Things, where cars, refrigerators and medical devices are all connected to the Web. The possibilities here are endless, and thus so is the potential for hackers. Raytheon is banking on its 30,000 sq. Ft cyber center to develop counter-measures to attacks.

While sanguine about the prospects for countering cyber-attacks, however, industry experts are realistic, and grounded in the recognition that cyber defense is a long term proposition, and that a hack-free system may never be possible. But they seem to be taking positive measures, and heading in the right direction…

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