April 20, 2005

Profs Receive 19 Million for Digital Research

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Cornell professors participating in a team of computer, legal and economic experts recently received a $19 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to investigate computer security.

About $3 million of the NSF grant will go directly to Cornell scientists, with the rest allocated to researchers at partner institutions.

Prof. Fred Schneider, computer sciences, will serve as the chief scientist of the Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology (TRUST), a group which aims “to create the kinds of technologies [people] need to make certain infrastructure more trustworthy,” and to make it more difficult to compromise areas which we depend on, explained Schneider.

In addition, Schneider said, “we expect to get contributions from industry and other branches of government… Microsoft has [already] given us some funding.”

The consortium is made up of specialists from across the country, including Cornell faculty members Prof. Kenneth Birman, computer science; Prof. Rajit Manohar, electrical and computer engineering; Prof. Emin Gun Sirer, computer science; and Prof. Lang Tong, electrical and computer engineering. Prof. Stephen Wicker, electrical and computer engineering, will organize Cornell’s efforts in TRUST and serve on the consortium’s governing board.

Schneider said the research will deal with “the various services that day to day life depends on but [people] ignore — air traffic control, financial services, electrical power… All those things are becoming very dependent on networked computer systems.”

Sectors such as finance, health, power, communications and defense can be quickly destabilized by computer glitches. Given the implications of such catastrophes, TRUST aims to “create a new national agenda…to tackle [computer security] problems properly,” said Birman.

The researchers will integrate their findings directly into classroom curricula in order to “create a whole generation of students nationwide…who are sophisticated about these questions,” and who will enter the workforce knowing how to build “systems that are trustworthy from the ground up,” Birman said.

Schneider compared it to what Rachel Carson did in the 1950s when she published Silent Spring: “Carson raised everyone’s sensitivities about the environment. The more people who learned about the environment and pollution and so on, the harder it became to do something stupid.”

Similarly, the researchers want to raise consciousness about computer security so that people will instinctively create more secure systems. Birman said that they hope to “create a culture of doing things right in the first place,” instead of having to mend individual problems as they arise.

Birman, whose software is used by the New York Stock Exchange and the traffic control system, is specifically interested in how to build large-scale computer systems and ensuring that they will be reliable and secure.

Wicker’s group does research in sensor networks. “What we’ve seen in the past five years,” he said, “is the development of very small sensors that have radio networking capabilities. There will be more and more applications of these sensors in the next five years… We might want to put sensors in building materials so that the sensors become part of the structure” and can track the stability of the building. Other promising developments include the potential to use sensor kits in disaster areas to help save lives, he noted.

“The thing I’m most excited about in TRUST is what has excited me about Cornell… I’ve found Cornell to be a tremendous environment for collaboration,” Wicker said.

Like the other Cornell researchers involved in TRUST, Wicker is looking forward to collaborating with academics at peer institutions such as Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University. Faculty at the participating institutions are known for their expertise in economic, social and legal issues.

Trustworthiness problems “don’t have purely technical solutions,” said Schneider. They “involve some changes in policy and law, and understanding how people fit into the picture.” It took great time and effort before the group received the NSF grant, Wicker explained. After several rounds of proposals and meetings, the NSF chose TRUST’s proposal out of about a hundred others. The NSF refers to TRUST as one of its Science and Technology Centers, the term it uses for major research efforts.

The NSF provides about 20 percent of federal funding for research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. It has awarded approximately 75 grants to Cornell professors this academic year.

Archived article by Heather Klein
Sun Staff Writer