Air Force Academy cadets working on system to stop computer viruses before they infect

by Tom Roeder
The Gazette (Colorado Springs)

Air Force Academy researchers are using software similar to that used to catch classroom cheaters in a bid to foil computer hackers.

The academy's anti-malware lab has built a program that scans malicious software used to steal computer data for similarities to other criminal codes, ferreting out even the newest malware that takes its language from older schemes.

"Imagine you are trying to detect plagiarism in a document," explained researcher Jason Upchurch, an Intel employee who is working on the project with academy cadets. "There's ways to get around doing a one-to-one comparison."

For years, colleges have used an electronic trove of research papers to compare student's work with what's already been turned in. The program looks for similar phrases and outright copying to catch cheaters.

Upchurch has amassed more than 4.5 million examples of malware to compare to newly emerging malicious software. That's enough to trip up often-lazy hackers who steal from earlier work to develop new virus programs.

Hackers rely on older software codes for good reason, Upchurch said. It's effective and efficient.

"You use a good piece of code," he said. "You take this bulk code you have already developed and you tweak it to make something new."

But the most popular anti-malware programs can't catch the hackers every time because of slight modifications to the virus. Instead of digging into the malicious programs for malware code, the anti-virus software scans for exact copies of programs that are already in a database.

That means that a new computer virus must infect systems to be detected.

The academy work, which includes the labors of cadets studying computer science, could stop the virus before it starts.

Lt. Col. Greg Bennett, deputy director of the academy's Homeland Security Center of Innovation, said the partnership with Intel for the virus-killing program puts cadets on the cutting edge of computer technology.

"We get a sneak peek at emerging technologies coming to the marketplace," he said.

The academy has always had a solid focus on undergraduate research to give cadets real-world experience before they graduate into the Air Force's officer ranks.

But as military spending on research has been hit by the federal budget crunch, private sector research - such as the partnership with Intel - has taken on a more prominent role.

"Now private sector research is far more substantial than what we have the ability to conduct in the military and the government," Bennett said.

The Intel project has taught cadets much about computer security.

The anti-malware lab is the electronic version of laboratories used to research infectious diseases. The key is to study virus samples without letting the infection out of the room.

"It's a closed system with no network at all," Upchurch said. "We spent six months writing policies and procedures."

And all those virus samples Upchurch has gathered are working for the government these days. If the research pays out, the results could protect Air Force computers.

"The research itself, everybody is really excited by it," he said.

©2015 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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