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  • Steven Walker, acting director of DARPA, speaks at AFCEA's Defensive Cyber Operations Symposium.
     Steven Walker, acting director of DARPA, speaks at AFCEA's Defensive Cyber Operations Symposium.

Machine Learning, Speed Imperative for Cybersecurity

The Cyber Edge
June 14, 2017
By Sandra Jontz
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It might be true that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) invented the Internet. And so, in some way, the agency could be considered at fault for the burgeoning ecosystem of cyberthreats, the agency's acting director joked Wednesday. But DARPA also shoulders some of the responsibility for finding protective solutions for the vulnerable space.

Securing the networks, the data and more broadly, any system that runs code, public or private, remains a truly difficult national security challenge for the nation, Steven Walker shared on the second day of AFCEA International's Defensive Cyber Operations Symposium, or DCOS. "One way to avoid technological surprises is to create technological surprises of our own,” Walker said, echoing the agency’s mantra. 

Hacking no longer falls within the domain of bored high school kids, Walker said. Attacks are perpetrated by sophisticated criminals and terrorists, some backed by the deep pockets of adversarial nation-states. Yet there is no silver bullet to solving the nation’s cyber problem, which makes interagency partnerships, such as one between the Defense Department’s future projects wing and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), so imperative.

“The DISA mission is incredibly important,” Walker said. “You actually have to take the technology we demonstrate and make it real for our network to secure the DOD systemwide.” 

Enfolded within the fight to secure the cyberspace is this nugget of good news: The cyber problem has the attention of the nation’s leaders, Walker said. He cited the president’s cyber executive order, which makes cybersecurity a national imperative. The much-anticipated order, signed May 11, lays out the government's path toward strengthening federal and the nation’s networks.

Walker highlighted for the symposium audience a handful of projects underway at DARPA, including homomorphic cryptography, obfuscation techniques and privacy-protecting approaches that tap advanced cryptography and machine-learning software to take advantage of the uber-connected ecosystem of Internet-connected devices.

DARPA also has launched Plan X, an advanced platform to conduct and assess cyber warfare like kinetic warfare. The program is scheduled to transition in September to the Army's Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS) Project Manager Installation Information Infrastructure–Communications and Capabilities (I3C2). 

The agency is looking for industry input for a new program that gives chase to cyber threats—literally. For its CHASE, or Cyber Hunting at Scale, initiative, DARPA is soliciting innovative research proposals in the area of data-driven cyber-hunting tools for real-time cyber threat detection, characterization and protection that can scale with enterprise needs. 

Additionally, the agency has several projects centered on artificial intelligence, which Walker touted as “critically important to moving forward” in cybersecurity. Adding more people as the answer will not work in the long term, he said. “Bringing machine learning and machine speed to the cybersecurity problem is going to be critical.”

At a session later in the day, John Scimone, senior vice president and chief security officer at Dell, echoed some of Walker’s cyber assessments. Speaking during a luncheon plenary, he said the speed at which industry can develop solutions has bolstered the government’s reliance on commercial solutions. The speed and agility at which industry can deliver solution far outpaces those of a more constrained government approach, he said. 

Some of those constraints, though, are culturally based and an ingrained resistance to embrace change, Scimone shared. “Culture is always a challenge. Technology is easy, people are harder.”

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