The nation’s business, once handled exclusively by mail and phone, now hums along over the Internet, with trillions of dollars changing hands daily through electronic transactions. That’s why Dr. Douglas Reeves, a member of NC State’s Cyber Defense Laboratory (CDL), sees the potential for a few snatches of computer codesome strings of 1’s and 0’sto be as crippling to the United States as a bomb or biological agent. “With enough resources and preparation, you could let loose a virus that wouldn’t just disrupt systems for a few vendors, but would render the Internet completely useless,” Reeves says.
The CDL works on projects funded by the likes of the Defense Department and the CIA to upgrade the security of the nation’s computer systems. Reeves, for example, is developing a method to monitor the timing of computer traffic to track hackers, who often bounce through a series of computer networks and use fake identifications to elude detection. Graduate students in the CDL also are working on methods to reduce fraud in e-commerce and are building better intrusion detection systems for computer networks. “This is an arms race. Hackers are intelligent adversaries that are always moving ahead, and we need to keep pace to protect ourselves,” Reeves says.
Dr. Annie Antón is just as concerned about safeguarding sensitive information and individual privacy as she is about the integrity of electronic transactions. The founder of The Privacy Place, where researchers from several universities work to align the actions and online privacy policies of corporations and agencies, Antón caught the attention of Department of Homeland Security officials with a critical study of JetBlue Airways. Two years ago, the discount airline handed the travel records of five million passengers to a Defense Department contractor, which combined the information with other data to develop profiles of suspected terrorists.
In two National Science Foundation-funded projects, Antón is examining the security of Americans’ medical and financial information by studying the privacy protections offered by insurers and major banks. “Information is very vulnerable on many computer networks,” she says. “And once you lose your privacy, you can’t get it back.”
Antón is also part of the Transnational Digital Government Project, which hopes to codify how information is shared across national law enforcement agencies. The first test of the project involves supporting border immigration agents in Belize and the Dominican Republicthe type of remote locale that could provide a point of entry for terrorists. “We have to find ways to disseminate necessary information without compromising security,” she says, “either national or personal.”