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Modeling cybersecurity after the human body

Building a cyber-immune system
Posted at 1:37 AM, Oct 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-23 04:37:02-04

TUCSON, Ariz — Imagine if the systems that protect our technology were like our immune systems. A team at the University of Arizona is doing just that: modeling cybersecurity after the human body.

Cybersecurity fends off electronic attacks coming through our internet, WiFi, and Bluetooth connections.

"We are always connected all the time. Your cell phone is connected to the internet, your laptop is connected, your home security system is connected. So we live in a connected world and so we are even more susceptible now than we used to be, say, 20 years ago," said Tamal Bose, UA's head of the Electrical Computer Engineering Department.

"We are going to have more than 40 billion devices connected on the internet. What that means is we have 40 billion doors to protect and secure. And you know, with that number, its just impossible to use the tradition cybersecurity solutions to protect that," said Salim Hariri, a UA electrical computer engineering professor and the project's principal investigator.

Which is why this team of researchers started looking at the human body's immune system.

"So just like how our human body has multiple alert systems, our computer systems and our hardware and software need to be protected in a similar fashion," said Bose.

This bio-inspired project won a $3 million grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration's Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program. And with it, the team is working on demonstrating cyber attacks that take control of, say, your car or house. Then will develop systems that will prevent those hacks from causing harm or from ever happening.

"So when your body is used to all the organs, we call it self-behavior. So any non-self behaviors, our software will detect it. And that's really what this project is about is can we build cyber immune systems like our bodies? If something invades your computers, your networks, your applications, your mobile app, we will be able to protect you," said Hariri.

Hariri said when he and his team first sought out funding for this research about five years ago, their proposal did not receive funding because funders thought the work was not implementable.

Now with a $3 million grant, the group is also receiving an additional $2.5 million from the Department of Defense to further its research so it can be deployed commercially.

"A big grant like this on cybersecuirty puts us on the map in terms of cyberdefense. The future of this research is really limitless, the applications are limitless," said Bose.

While researches develop these new techniques, they will also train students from under-represented minority groups.