Nav: Home

Roadmap to safer cyberspace

December 17, 2015

How do cybersecurity experts discover how to properly defend a system or build a network that's secure?

As in other domains of science, this process involves hypothesis, experimentation, and analysis -- or at least it should. In reality, cybersecurity research can happen in an ad hoc fashion, often in crisis mode in the wake of an attack.

However, a set of researchers has imagined a different approach, one in which experts can test their theories and peers can review their work in realistic but contained environments -- not unlike the laboratories found in other fields of science.

"Our adversaries have an incredible environment for testing out attacks: the Internet, on which all our production systems operate," said Terry Benzel, deputy director for the Internet and Networked Systems Division at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) of the University of Southern California. "They can sit and analyze our vulnerabilities for as long as they want, probe and poke and run experiments until they find the right way in. Our researchers and leading technology developers don't have anything like that."

This "asymmetry," as researchers call it, is part of the reason so many cyberattacks and breaches occur. It also served as motivation for the the National Science Foundation (NSF) moving in 2013 to fund a multi-year effort to determine how to best advance the field of experimental cybersecurity.

Led by cybersecurity researchers from SRI International and ISI with decades of years of experience designing, building, and operating large cybersecurity testbeds, the effort involved more than 150 experts, representing 75 organizations. They participated in three workshops in 2014.

The researchers released a report resulting from this activity, titled "Cybersecurity Experimentation of the Future (CEF): Catalyzing a New Generation of Experimental Cybersecurity Research," in July 2015.

The Science of Cybersecurity Experimentation

Though one might expect the report to focus on the types of hardware, software and networking required for conducting cybersecurity experiments, the main takeaway is even more fundamental: the research community needs to develop a "science of cybersecurity experimentation."

The report stressed that key elements of that discipline should include methods, approaches and techniques that researchers can use to create reproducible studies that the community can test, reuse and build upon.

"Experimentation is an inherent part of the scientific method and you can't do research without doing experimentation," said Douglas Maughan, Director of the Cyber Security Division at the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate. "This report is a critical first step to re-think what is needed in cyber experimentation before we build the infrastructure."

Using the scientific method also requires peer review and repeatability. The report emphasized the need for infrastructure that supports and enables repeatable experiments by creating easy ways for researchers to test each others' results.

Moreover, instead of uncoordinated, domain-specific studies -- some related to denial of service attacks or password cracking, others related to critical infrastructure or automotive testing -- researcher need common standards and ways to work across disciplines and domains.

"The adversary isn't looking narrowly," Benzel said, "and researchers can't afford to either."

Finally, the community needs to develop new approaches for sharing and synthesizing data in order to accelerate knowledge and community building across disciplines and organizations.

"We need a way that makes it easy for researchers, not only from different aspects of cybersecurity, but across different domains, to share their problems and draw from a library of experimental cyber components to put together a big problem," Benzel said.

Recommendations for Securing our Cyber-Future

Based on input from scholars, the authors synthesized five key observations that they believe, if followed, will yield transformational results.

First, research must be multidisciplinary. Whereas today, experts typically specialize in one area, in the future, individuals and teams must incorporate a wider range of knowledge and skills.

"We need to bring in different disciplines, from computer science, engineering, math and modeling to human behavior, sociology, economics and education," said David Balenson, another of the lead authors and a senior computer scientist at SRI International.

Second, experiments must accurately model and incorporate human activity.

"Everything we do needs to be grounded in the real world and include the human element -- users, operators, maintainers, developers and even the adversary," Balenson said.

NSF Program Director Anita Nikolich said performing cybersecurity research "in an isolated, contained environment that doesn't mimic reality is not conducive to discovering the nuances inherent in this sort of research. New approaches to testing are needed in order to produce useful, actionable results."

Third, different experimental environments must be able to work together in a plug-and-play fashion by following common models of infrastructure and experiment components using open interfaces and standards.

"Without shared experimental infrastructure, researchers have to spend lots of money developing their own experimental infrastructure which takes away from their core research," said Laura Tinnel, a senior research engineer at SRI International and one of the study's authors. "People are reinventing the wheel."

Fourth, experimental frameworks must allow reusable designs to better enable science-based hypothesis testing.

"In most other sciences, someone can come and repeat your experiment, but that's not typically the case in cyber," Benzel said. Hardwiring such capabilities into the structure of the experimental framework would allow researchers to do broader experiments, and also lower the barrier to entry and improve education and training.

Finally, any infrastructure that is built must be useable and intuitive, so researchers and students spend less time learning to use the infrastructure and more time doing critical scientific inquiry. Moreover, the community must adopt a more rigorous scientific model for research and supporting infrastructure.

"People have been doing things the same way for some time now, and trying to get them to work in a more community-oriented way is going to take some shifts in their thinking as well as cultural changes," Balenson said.

However, the study's authors believe that if the scientific community follows the recommendations, such a shift would not only change the balance of power between hackers and cybersecurity experts, but result in systems that are secure by design -- something that long-discussed in the cybersecurity world but not yet successfully implemented.

"We can shift this asymmetric cyberspace context to one of greater planning, preparedness, anticipation and higher assurance solutions," Benzel said.
-end-
-NSF-

National Science Foundation

Related Cybersecurity Articles:

New brain-inspired cybersecurity system detects 'bad apples' 100 times faster
The Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope can look for the complex patterns that indicate specific 'bad apples,' all while using less electricity than a standard 60-watt light bulb, due to its brain-inspired design.
NTU and FireEye join forces to grow the ranks of Singapore's cyber security experts
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) and leading cyber security company FireEye are inking a partnership to explore new areas in cyber security research, and to develop courses to meet the rising demand for cyber security professionals needed to help defend critical networks.
Protecting bulk power systems from hackers
Most of us take turning the lights on for granted.
UMass Amherst boosts deep learning research with powerful new GPU cluster
With a new cluster of specialized graphics processing units (GPUs) now installed, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is poised to attract the nation's next crop of top Ph.D. students and researchers in such fields as artificial intelligence, computer vision and natural language processing, says associate professor Erik Learned-Miller of the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS).
Streamlining the Internet of Things and other cyber-physical systems
In an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) keynote paper, computer engineers lay out a framework to improve research on cyber-physical systems.
'Security fatigue' can cause computer users to feel hopeless and act recklessly
A new study from National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers found that a majority of the typical computer users they interviewed experienced security fatigue -- weariness or reluctance to deal with computer security -- that often leads users to risky computing behavior at work and in their personal lives.
Cybersecurity researchers design a chip that checks for sabotage
With the outsourcing of microchip design and fabrication worldwide, bad actors along the supply chain have many opportunities to install malicious circuitry in chips.
NYU researchers report cybersecurity risks in 3-D printing
Researchers examined two aspects of additive manufacturing (AM), or 3-D printing, that could have cybersecurity implications and harmful economic impact: printing orientation and insertion of fine defects.
Mason researchers keep networks moving to stay safe from hacker attacks
Imagine burglars have targeted your home, but before they break in, you've already moved and are safe from harm.
Partnership prepares undergraduates to tackle cybersecurity
The Software Assurance Marketplace, housed at the Morgridge Institute for Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is working to address a major cybersecurity skills gap in US undergraduate computer science programs.

Related Cybersecurity Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#521 The Curious Life of Krill
Krill may be one of the most abundant forms of life on our planet... but it turns out we don't know that much about them. For a create that underpins a massive ocean ecosystem and lives in our oceans in massive numbers, they're surprisingly difficult to study. We sit down and shine some light on these underappreciated crustaceans with Stephen Nicol, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, and author of the book "The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World".