Twenty-four hours, 4 awards: NCSA’s CyberSecurity team awarded grants from NSF for attack detection tools, enhancing security

01.21.16 -

by Susan Szuch

In a span of 24 hours, The CyberSecurity team at the NCSA received news on four grants—two for continuing work, and two for starting new projects.

At the beginning of September, Alex Withers, senior security engineer for the CyberSecurity team, was awarded a $499,136 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build a tool to detect malicious activity. Designed to fit inside an existing security environment, the tool consumes security logs and examines separate events that may have led up to malicious activity.

For example, if a desktop reaches out remotely to another computer, it might not be malicious activity. However, if someone received a suspicious email, downloaded a program from the email, and then experienced their desktop reaching out to another computer, it could be suspicious.

Withers acknowledges that it can be hard to link events that are seemingly unrelated, and more difficult to link them correctly without being influenced by confirmation bias. The tool, called "AttackTagger," is meant to make it easier to link events without getting false results.

The tool stems from research by professor of electrical and computer engineering Ravi Iyer’s DEPEND group, providing a practical application for the data and research.

"It's a great idea to transform research into a tool readily deployed," Withers says.

The research was the result of a five-year span of data taken from the NCSA's incident reports written by security analysts. In those, analysts went back after the fact, looked at the logs of events that occurred and determined what events happened in sequence. The DEPEND group used NCSA's data in their research and development of the AttackTagger tool.

Eric Badger, a graduate student working with DEPEND, works on architecture for data flow, or a pipeline, to help confirm that AttackTagger works well. The attack detection happens in real time, as the events move from the host and network through the pipeline, where they end up in attack detection software. While the previous research dealt with an ideal set of events, Badger's current research deals with practical, real-world events.

"We might not get exactly the same false-positive and true-positive levels that we had in our previous research," Badger says. "But we're hoping for at least something that is fairly manageable, and that we can improve on in a real world setting."

One thing that Badger made sure of was that the source code for the pipeline architecture was open source, or available for anyone to look at or change.

"You can take this system and mold it to be your own easily, instead of taking this prepackaged, 'take-it-or-leave-it' kind of thing," Badger says.

Withers, along with Integrated CyberInfrastructure director Randal Butler and CyberSecurity director Adam Slagell, received a $499,206 grant to create Science DMZ Actionable Intelligence Appliance (SDAIA), which enhances the security infrastructure of open science networks.

The Science DMZ model benefits universities in how it allows them to transfer large amounts of data without firewalls or other devices in the way.

SDAIA will help keep those open networks secure.

Since some universities may be able to share computing capabilities but have limited IT departments, so SDAIA keeps the front part of the network secure. One part is through a honeypot, a mechanism that lures attackers in and then uses the information gathered against them. The other part is how it benefits universities by sharing data about attacks, which can alert other sites of threats.

By sharing data, SDAIA allows researchers to possibly see patterns in the attacks. Through this, it provides the opportunity to strengthen the security of sites and lets researchers be able to focus on more important things.

"What Science DMZ protects are mainly networks to facilitate science. If they're not secured, it ends up disrupting resources, spending more time preventing attacks, which prevents the science from flowing," Withers says.

Slagell notes that the SDAIA and the Science DMZ are both small pieces of a bigger puzzle.

"The Science DMZ is helping to remove bottlenecks in science, and we're helping to secure (the Science DMZ) so that those resources are available and people start making use of them and connecting these together," Slagell said. "It's part of a larger goal for NSF, building up this infrastructure and building out across the nation, investing in it. It's part of a longer story."

The other grants allowed senior research scientist Jim Basney to continue work on CILogon and the Center for Trustworthy Scientific Cyberinfrastructure (CTSC).

Awarded a $499,973 grant, CILogon 2.0 is a project that works to allow researchers to access online resources like supercomputers, wikis and data stores by using their campus credentials. It allows scientists to spend less time on setting up security and identity verification systems and more time on their scientific collaboration. The CILogon project began in September of 2009, and CILogon 2.0 is the "next generation of CILogon," says Basney.

In addition to taking the project to an international level, Basney is also utilizing COManage to manage groups of researchers and let researchers "define the membership of their collaboration." Basney is working with the COManage experts at Spherical Cow Group on this aspect of the project.

For example, if a researcher used CILogon, it can tell who the person is, but won’t know if they're a member of a group, which is needed to allow data sharing with the other people in that group.

"Projects that are using the current CILogon are required to provide their own group management capability, but when we bring COManage into CILogon 2.0, then we give them a bundled solution so that they get the identity and group management together."

The other project that Basney is part of—CTSC—was started in October of 2012. The NSF awarded the project a follow-on grant of $4,999,709 to continue for another three years. Of that total grant, $1,374,035 is budgeted for the NCSA.

The CTSC project, led by Indiana University in partnership with NCSA, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, and University of Wisconsin, aims to help other NSF projects improve their security.

The CTSC works with projects to develop security plans and solve technical security problems. CTSC staff work with people on the project they're assisting to produce a report, technical results or a security program plan the project can implement.

In addition to working with projects individually, the CSTC also holds a cybersecurity summit each August where representatives of the NSF facilities discuss their security challenges and host presentations.