NAU cyber engineering team wins $6M grant to develop computing solutions to combat cyberattacks

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Oct. 14, 2019

A team of Northern Arizona University researchers won a three-year, $6.3 million grant from the U.S. Air Force to develop nontraditional solutions to the increasing danger of cyberattacks and cyber warfare.

The research, led by professors Bertrand Cambou and Paul Flikkema of the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, will examine the practicality of outsmarting hackers by using new hardware technologies. They say the impact of this work reaches all corners of modern life, helping to protect the computers that control factories, power plants, transportation systems, drones, personal medical devices and more.

The project, which is actually two separate projects, includes half a dozen researchers, as well as several graduate and undergraduate students. It highlights the necessity of diversity computing to improve cybersecurity. The multi-faceted team of physicists, engineers and data scientists is looking for engineering solutions to cybersecurity problems—problems that can negatively affect both individuals and society.

“This investment by the U.S. Air Force in an NAU-led research partnership cements this positive relationship and expands our capacity to provide research solutions for critical problems in cybersecurity,” said Ben Ruddell, director of the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems.

This collaboration started as a call from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for radical ideas on addressing cybersecurity issues. The current methods of cybersecurity include encryption of information, or at least the doorway to the information, as well as putting up firewalls and virus detection software and training people to use caution. We have learned too many times that these methods are not enough.

Current cryptographic techniques will become vulnerable in 2022 and will be replaced by a new form of cryptography that will run on quantum computers. Years ago, when this became apparent, Cambou and others worked with AFRL to develop a cryptographic protocol and hardware prototype demonstrating the new highly resilient architecture. This research is the next step in that process. 

“The strategic plan for the coming years includes significant investment in critical cybersecurity research and programs; this growing industry continues to be one of NAU’s strengths,” said President Rita Cheng. “I’m pleased that the Air Force recognizes our faculty’s innovative approach to identifying and solving the difficult problems facing the world today.”

Nanotechnologies and technology modules for computing diversity (PI Cambou)

Cambou will lead a highly interdisciplinary team to develop key technology modules that will enable new forms of protection across the landscape of cybersecurity needs, including physical unclonable functions, cryptography, blockchain and key distribution.

The core research team consists of physicists Ines Montaño and Ryan Behunin, nanomaterials scientist Gabe Montaño, Fatemeh Afghah, an expert on wireless communications and errors in computing, computer scientists Michael Gowanlock and Toby Hocking, and Tolga Yalcin, an expert in hardware security.

The potential benefit of these breakthroughs is bigger than corporate breaches and stolen data, as vitally important as defending against such break-ins are. Cambou pointed to pacemakers, self-driving cars, airplanes and other devices that can be hacked, threatening personal and public safety.

“We are very much interested in protecting the Internet of Things in a post-quantum computing environment,” Cambou said. “That’s essentially the prime focus here.”

Architecture development for computing diversity (PI Flikkema)

Hardware and software are often identical, or very close to it, on computers throughout the world; there are vast populations of identical machines. This makes the impact of a successful malware or virus attack potentially widespread and catastrophic, since one program can affect millions of machines. This project directly addresses technological solutions that can stop epidemics of computer hacking caused by these nearly identical copies of computers and software.

“This is similar to flu in humans: because people are all of the same species, once a flu virus evolves to make humans sick, it can affect millions,” Flikkema said. “Our approach is to use new hardware technologies to create computer electronics that are difficult to learn by bad actors, like a new species of animal that is invulnerable to a human flu virus.”

Flikkema’s goal, in collaboration with Cambou and associate professor James Palmer, is to develop and combine several new technologies, including innovations in microelectronics and the design of computer hardware, to improve the ability of computers to fend off cyberattacks. They’ll do this through implementing new forms of computational diversity, which will radically shrink the attack surface of any global network of devices while increasing each machine’s ability to detect and defeat attacks.

“Up to this point, computers have revolutionized society and provided many new benefits and services for people,” Flikkema said. “But they are highly vulnerable to cyberattacks by hackers all over the globe. Only now are we learning the grave threat attackers pose to our computerized society and how to defend computers from these threats. This work aims to rethink how to design computers so they are inherently resistant to cyberattacks.”

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications