Securing a virtual world

HOW MUCH PERSONAL INFORMATION DO YOU HAVE STORED ON THE INTERNET? Think about how many times you have entered your phone number, address and even your social security number into an online bill payment, application or form.

Auburn Engineering is responding to a crisis facing the United States – the country’s need for digital forensic experts – and is tackling head on the challenge of keeping our information safe and secure. Drew Hamilton, alumni professor in computer science and software engineering and director of Auburn’s Information Assurance Center, is teaching the next generation of cyber security specialists and leading a multidisciplinary team of Auburn researchers, called the Cyber Task Force, to bolster education in cyber security and bring awareness to the field. Auburn University is a National Security Agency Center of Academic Excellence in both cyber security education and research.

Since 2005, the university has participated in the National Science Foundation’s Scholarship for Service program (SFS), which offers students the opportunity to conduct research in cyber security and information assurance. In return for their scholarships, recipients work for a federal, state, local or tribal government organization after graduation in a position related to cyber security for a period equal to the length of their scholarship. Hamilton was recently awarded a $122,000 NSF grant to support the SFS program as well as assist Western New Mexico University in establishing a digital forensics academy. The goal of the academy is to enable minority students to be more competitive for positions in the federal government.

“There is a real need for this in the state of New Mexico, but there is a shortage of digital forensics experts everywhere,” says Hamilton. “We hosted a workshop that several law enforcement officers traveled more than 100 miles to attend. Digital forensics, like tracking cell phone records, is playing a much larger role in law enforcement. Police officers need to be trained in this as well as students.”

Hamilton’s group is working to replicate the digital forensics academy in Alabama, starting with Auburn University at Montgomery.

The NSF award brings Auburn’s total funding for the SFS program to $5.3 million since an initial grant in 2005. Hamilton awarded more than $100,000 in cyber scholarships to seven computer science and software engineering students this semester under the NSF CyberCorps program, as well as one industrial and systems engineering student under the National Security Agency information assurance scholarship program.

“The world is using computers, but the whole world is not made up of computer scientists,” Hamilton says. “As we move more and more into using shared databases, we need to defend cloud architectures to make them more secure. We need people who know how to safeguard information from unauthorized access.”

Devin Cook, doctoral student leading Hamilton’s lab, is doing just that. He’s working to leverage the benefits of cloud drives – the newest servers that companies such as Amazon, Google and Apple are creating through their websites – to ensure that information stored on them is safe. Cloud servers store information on a virtual “cloud drive” that can be accessed by logging in through any computer.

“All cloud services are based on the concept of virtualization, where you run multiple ‘virtual machines’ on one physical computer,” he says. “We’re working toward providing a way to ensure those virtual machines, and the data stored on them, are safe.”

Cook and his research team use artificial intelligence techniques to train a detector that monitors a cloud drive and seeks out suspicious activity. Once an intrusion has been detected, the computer can be paused to ensure that no further intrusions take place until the situation is reviewed or the cloud drive can be rolled back to a known good state, as if the intrusion has not occurred.

“We are focusing less on keeping the bad guys out and more on keeping them from stealing useful information once they’re into the cloud server,” he says. “It turns out that trying to prevent the intrusion itself is a losing battle. There will always be a way in.”

Preventing this issue is imperative in today’s age of digital bill payments, online forms that request social security numbers, and the constant flow of email. Cook points out that any service utilizing virtualization stands to gain from the Auburn team’s research.

“We need to defend the cloud architecture to make it more secure since everything seems to stem from it nowadays,” says Hamilton. “Think about how much your doctor knows about you and what information is stored on the office computer. Anyone can break into almost any username as long as you know the account.”

Cook is no stranger to ensuring virtual safety. An SFS scholarship recipient as well as a dean’s fellowship scholar, he spent this past summer working for the Department of Energy and will serve in the Federal Civil Service when he completes his doctorate.

But when he is not preventing virtual trespassing, Cook is also the one executing the hacking. In July, the most elite spymasters gathered at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas for DefCon, a major cyber security conference. When the conference concluded, the weekend-long hacking competition, Capture the Flag, began. Cook’s team, code-named Samurai, won the competition.

Twenty teams were given custom services – built by DefCon to be intentionally vulnerable – to run on their computers, with a hidden file imbedded in one program. Teams were on the search for the file while defending their own programs and attacking others – a virtual game of capture the flag.

“A lot of reverse engineering is involved,” says Cook.

Cook’s team consisted of 80 hackers, 30 of whom were at the conference, and 50 who were participating from around the world.

“We would start at 9 or 10 a.m. and finish for the day at 9 p.m., but with those team members across the country, we could have people working 24 hours a day,” explains Cook. By the end of the weekend, Team Samurai proved to be the champion hackers at DefCon.

Sometimes, in order to better protect the cyber world, someone has to break in to it first.

With students like Cook, and faculty like Hamilton, Auburn has the resources and expertise to pursue advanced research that meets tomorrow’s needs, trains students for careers in information assurance that develop leaders in the industry and keep society safe. Auburn Engineering is up to the challenge.

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