USU lab researching cyberterrorism

By Kim Burgess
The Herald Journal
August 1, 2007

Team will likely get $2 million funding to continue work

With computers controlling everything from ATMs to hospital databases, attacks on the nation’s technological infrastructure could cause major disruptions.

A Utah State University lab is attempting to plan for these situations.

“We would want to avoid the cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor, that is something that would catch us unprepared,” said Jim Marshall, a program manager at Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Lab.

Marshall and his team at the lab’s Cyberconflict Research Consortium have researched computer attacks for the past year and a half, and will likely receive about $2 million to continue their work.

The money would come from Congress through a bill supported by Sen. Bob Bennett. The measure calls for a total of $3 billion to strengthen border security. It has been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee and now proceeds to a Senate and House conference committee. After the conference is completed, likely this fall, both chambers will vote on the conference report and the legislation will be sent to the president for his signature.

For the project, USU is working with four other institutions — the University of Nevada, Reno; University of Miami, Ohio; Norwich University and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank. Each is addressing a different aspect of cyber security and should also receive about $2 million from the Congressional bill.

At USU, those funds would go toward the lab’s main focus — visualizations or computer graphic images to put data in a visual form. Bar graphs and pie charts are simple visualizations, but in the case of cyber terrorism, something more complex is needed.

“With a large-scale cyber attack, you have a lot of information, gigabytes and terabytes of information,” said USU computer scientist Robert Erbacher, who is assisting with the consortium.

The USU team will set up ways to organize these reams of data into a form that is easily understandable to a military or homeland security officer.

The SDL has experience with visualizations because they construct them for the data collected by telescopes and sensor systems that monitor space.

While Muslim extremists could launch cyber terror attacks, both Erbacher and Marshall cite foreign governments as a bigger concern.

“We know that China is scanning our networks,” Erbacher said. “Any country can try to attack the U.S. over the network. Cyber capabilities allows smaller countries to compete with the U.S. We need to be prepared to defend against them.”

In Estonia, government servers were hit by “denial of service” attacks, which bombard the site with many fake requests for information. Russia was likely behind the May 2007 attack because its government was angry that a World War II memorial was moved from the center of Estonia’s capital.

“It’s a big issue right now,” Erbacher said, before warning that theses types of cyber attacks have not received adequate attention.

“Wide-spread attacks of networks are possible,” he continued.

© 2007 The Herald Journal