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September 3, 2009
By John Trent
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, provide a haunting reminder of what can happen when the nation is caught unaware by a terror group.
In 2011, the threat doesn’t seem quite so dramatic. Or does it?
Lurking is a much more subtle, initially silent form of disruption – one that could come via cyberspace – that could ultimately prove even more debilitating for America.
Since the events of 9/11, the nation’s Homeland Security leaders have worried about the consequences of a cyber attack from a nation-state or even a smaller group of individuals. Such an attack could throw an entire system of commerce based on transactions made through the Internet into complete disarray.
A national research consortium that includes computer science and engineering professors from the University of Nevada, Reno, is at the forefront of an effort to eliminate much of the potential for cyberspace attacks.
Through a multi-million-dollar contract with the Department of Homeland Security, researchers from the Norwich University Applied Research Institutes (which is serving as the prime contractor), the University’s Computer Science and Engineering Department, the Space Dynamics Lab at Utah State University, the Farmer School of Business at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio, and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., are working to create a financial sector risk management model that would include a threat based simulation of cyber threat and other man-made and natural disruptions. The model also includes application to other key infrastructure areas such as energy, telecommunications and transportation.
The need has never been greater, according to Eric Braman, vice president of Norwich University Applied Research Institutes.
“Cyber Conflict, the use of cyberspace as an attack vector by a nation state or a trans-national actor to conduct a non-kinetic attack, has the potential to affect a whole series of critical infrastructures and impact the ability of the U.S. to conduct business,” Braman said. “As a technological society, we’re dependent on an open and safe Internet to connect a whole host of activities. A potential adversary, through exploit of the Internet, could affect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information, thus impacting decision-making capability of both government and private sector enterprise. Though a low-probability event, Cyber Conflict has the potential to result in an extremely high-consequence situation.”
Norwich researchers have been at the forefront of the cyber preparedness effort for several years, having worked at assessing the interconnecting roles and missions of government and industry and in recommending strategies to counter cyber threats.
In formulating a far-reaching model that would help government and members of the nation’s key infrastructure industries replicate disruption of computers and information systems and to simulate decision-making processes of the participants, it became apparent to Norwich that a “deeper bench,” as Braman said, was needed for the project.
The University, which has targeted the areas of computer Artificial Intelligence and Serious Games in recent years by adding faculty and increasing its breadth of research in such areas, seemed a natural choice for the project.
“Three years ago, we made a conscious effort to recruit more faculty members in A.I. and Serious Games and that has certainly boosted our potential for this kind of work,” said Yaakov Varol, professor and chair in the College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “We have a number of people who have done work with the Navy, and the Department of Defense with Serious Games simulations. This is not our first foray into this kind of work, although this is the first time that we’ve done work which is considered to be critical and sensitive.
“We’re excited about the future of this project.”
The financial sector model the consortium is perfecting is a fascinating mix of high-tech computer science and high-touch human psychology, according to Ernest W. Drew, the Principal Investigator of the Norwich team.
“We need to have some tools in order to deal with the effect of what disruptions could occur within the financial sector if an event were to occur,” he said. “But before you do that, you need to work with the people in the sector, to get a better idea of what they do, at a gross level. We need to know, for example, what a broker-dealer does – what kind of business processes do they have? How many transactions through their system could be disrupted? And then, once you understand that, how do people behave when the system is interrupted.”
Drew said University professors such as Bobby Bryant, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering, have played a key role in adding the more technical layers to the model that is being developed.
“Bobby and Yaakov are helping us apply A.I. to business processes,” he said. “It’s another example of the collaborative nature of this project. Norwich is responsible for the underlying simulation and exercise, but each member of the consortium has a very clearly defined role. Nevada clearly has a great deal of strength in A.I. and other types of simulations.”
The consortium’s model that can be used for specialized emergency preparedness exercises is designed to look at disruptions of key infrastructure, such as the financial industry. Potential disruptions a technologically driven society can face can run the gamut, from a man-made cyber attack to a natural disaster.
“Every organization has a public face,” he said. “And, they have transactions that they have to do with the outside, whether it’s a broker trying to clear a transaction or a customer who buys a share of IBM. The broker has to know where that share is coming from; they have to get money which may be sitting in another bank in order to complete the transaction. There are many requirements for a single buy or sell to take place.
“Now, if one of those entities doesn’t do what is expected of them, then the system starts to break down. If one entity begins to behave differently, the whole system could quickly go out of balance. Unintended consequences of behavior can have a serious impact on the system.”