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My GWU Discussion – Part 3 – What to do About Cybersecurity

May 30th, 2011 · 2 Comments · cyber-security, presentations, scada, social networking

This is my third (and thankfully to most readers, last) post about a class at I gave at George Washington University earlier this year. The professor, Dr. Robert McCreight, invites me to be a guest lecturer on cyber-security from time to time. I posted a copy of my slides in the previous two posts and do so again here:

George Washington University Slides on Cyber-Security

In the last post I returned as I often do to the question “How to be secure when each component of your solution is itself insecure?”. I find that most practitioners, and in particular their management, are in denial on this issue. While my first suggested step which is to practice security hygiene is useful it does not help against a determined attacker.

While I am not sure if anything short of not connecting to anyone will work all the time, two possible approaches seem promising.

First, is the concept of an OODA loop. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It was developed by a US Air Force Colonel John Boyd who has since passed away, there is a rich set of literature on the topic for those interested in reading more. My slide 19 has an illustration of how this approach works at a conceptual level.

My simple interpretation is to be able to change faster than the bad guys are able to penetrate.  It was Boyd’s contention that in modern warfare the adversary who has the faster OODA loop would generally win. With cybersecurity, as with all security, the attacker generally has an inherent advantage of motion over the defender. Thus it requires serious planning to have an architecture that is agile enough to change and adapt and still remain operational.

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A second approach is to use a biological construct. For example, your body has many viruses wandering around inside it at any point in time, yet in general people are healthy and the body defends itself well against these viruses – though with some help from time to time from a doctor.

The concept of having loosely coupled systems working together, like the cells in your body do, is called being Stigmergic systems, described in my slide 20.

In the class I described ants as an example of a Stigmergic system. An ant which finds food leaves a trail that other ants then follow. While none of them ‘talk’ directly to each other, they work together indirectly. This kind of swarm intelligence is characterized by fast adaptation, living OODA loops.

Once again, this kind of capability would have to be built into systems in order to work, it would require a completely different approach to system design.

I considered each of these merely thought exercises, I do not have much personal experience with either. However, earlier today when I was working on this post, I ran across an article about a Wake Forest University professor who is working on digital ants to check networks for viruses, so perhaps Stigmergic systems are one serious way to go:


Quoting Professor Errin Fulp: “As they move about the network, they leave digital trails modeled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants. Each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. Stronger scent trails attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection.”

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And anyway, who wouldn’t want to be able to use the word Stigmergic in casual conversation at a cocktail party. Of course, that would imply that a Stigmergic designer would get invited to one.


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