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$2.1 Million: Integrate Security Features into Computers

Penn computer scientists have received a two-year, $2,125,000 grant to introduce advanced security features used in special-purpose government computers into standard office PCs.

"The funding, from the Defense Advanced Re search Projects Agency (DARPA), represents a change in the federal government’s approach to procuring highly secure computers," said principal investigator Dr. Jonathan M. Smith. "Endlessly besieged by individuals seeking to break into federal web sites and classified files, government computers require security mechanisms and assurances far more stringent than those ordinarily engineered into the computers available to the general public."

"During the last few decades, the government’s approach has been to contract researchers to develop high-security workstations specifically for its own uses, outside of the mainstream computer industry," said Dr. Smith, professor of computer and information science at Penn. "The problem is that development of these special-purpose computers has generally progressed so slowly that the machines, while indeed secure, are technically obsolete by the time they are put into service."

Smith and colleagues at Penn, the software development consortium OpenBSD, and the Apache Software Foundation and OpenSSL Group propose to use the open-source movement—where programmers openly share incremental advances—to try to engineer better security features into mainstream computers, not only those developed just for the military and other high-security organizations. The government then benefits by purchasing more affordable, standardized computers with security features.

"Computers developed for consumer use have focused on user-friendliness, not security concerns," Dr. Smith said. "Users generally only care about security when they’ve had a failure."

Working through OpenBSD, the computing world’s most secure forum for the development of open-source software, the team hopes to integrate stronger security features into mainstream software as it progresses through development. Individuals worldwide who are interested in software can download and examine open-source code and suggest revisions. This collaborative approach leads to more robust software more quickly, Dr. Smith said.

By auditing the security weaknesses of conventional software as it is developed, Smith’s team will try to foster the development of mainstream systems secure enough to meet the government’s needs. The team will share its security advances with the open-source software community via OpenBSD, whose machines have proven impervious to break-ins for many years. The team will work on an audit of OpenSSL, the widely used software for e-commerce security found in the Apache web server. Apache software is widely used in web applications.

"We expect our work will represent a serious contribution to all computer manufacturers, not just the government," Dr. Smith said. "The source code we develop will be freely available to everyone, and no manufacturers want to deliver an insecure system when they know how to do better."

Dr. Smith’s colleagues on the DARPA-funded work include Theo de Raadt, project founder and leader of OpenBSD; Michael B. Greenwald, assistant professor of computer and information science at Penn; Ben Laurie, technical director of A.L. Digital Ltd., a director of the Apache Software Foundation and core team member of the Open SSL Group; and Angelos Keromytis, assistant professor of computer science at Columbia University.

Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 6, October 2, 2001


October 2, 2001
Volume 48 Number 6

Dr. Lerman appointed associate director for Cancer Control and Population Science and director of the Tobacco Research program at the Leonard & Madlyn Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute
$2.1 million grant to introduce advanced security features into standard office PCs.
Dennis DeTurck, Srilata Gangulee and Alton Strange will serve the Colleges Houses this year.
The new director for public serves at the Library is Sandra Kerbel.
Wharton as appointed Steven Oliveira as associate dean for External Affairs.
UCD has announced it's new executive director.
Deadlines are announced for Pilot and Feasibility Grants, Trustees' Council Grants, Robert Bosch Fellowships and Luce Scholars Program
Year-end Council reports: Community Relations; Facilities; Personnel Benefits; Pluralism; Quality of Student Life; and Safety and Security.
A new Temporary Staffing Services has a new vendor; EHRS has Training for October and Annual Tuberculosis Screening is now available.
Steinhardt Hall, the new Hillel Center breaks ground.