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Arming against online attacks

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers specializing in cyber security believe that when it comes to computer hackers, prevention is the best medicine.

"If you detect a cyber attack, it's too late," said Wayne Meitzler, a program manager in the national security science and technology department. Pacific Northwest's growing cyber security program is focused on how to defend software and computer systems against unwelcome invasions.

For example, the Laboratory is developing tools that can analyze programming and identify where it could be susceptible to attacks. By doing so, vulnerabilities can be eliminated while software is being developed and before it is deployed.

"The computer industry has tended to focus on speed and efficiency, not on security," Meitzler said. For the same reason, researchers are exploring how to meet the need for security tools to keep up with the ever-increasing power of high-speed networks.

In a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, researchers are building a super virus scanner that will identify unintentional "back doors" in software and uncover potential security risks. These tools may be used one day by independent agencies that test software or by end users who want to assess the security of their software.

A prototype training program developed at the Pacific Northwest's Critical Infrastructure Protection and Analysis Laboratory, or CIPAL, allows systems administrators to gain hands-on cyber security experience while keeping their own systems out of harm's way.

CIPAL is a dedicated cyber research and development laboratory created specifically to counter cyber threats. "CIPAL provides a safe environment for developing and testing tools by exposing them to a variety of attacks," Meitzler said.

With as many as 20 ongoing projects, Steve Martin, manager of the Laboratory's protection, interdiction and enforcement technology product line, sums it up by saying, "We're working on solutions ranging from policy level discussions and decisions to developing precise pieces of code to fix specific problems."

Because of their expertise in computational science, systems engineering and information visualization, Laboratory staff members often are asked to participate in groups that are focused on cyber security issues.

Researchers are actively involved with groups such as a national interagency panel that assesses potential cyber threats; Computer Law Enforcement of Washington, a working group that strives to educate and protect the citizens of Washington state from computer crimes; and a Northwest cyber security consortium that includes the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Microsoft, Oracle, Unisys and the University of Idaho.

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