Digital Ants Protect Computer Networks

As the Internet increasingly connects the U.S.’ electrical power grid — from a nuclear power plant in California to transmission lines in Texas — cyber attacks also increase. But according to an by Kerry King, Wake Forest University professor of Computer Science Errin Fulp is training an army of “digital ants” to defend the grid. Fulp’s plan is to turn the digital ants loose in the power grid to target computer viruses. If proven successful, the approach could protect anything connected to Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) networks and computer systems, which control water and sewer management systems, mass transit systems and manufacturing systems, among other systems.

This summer, Fulp will work with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) scientists in Richland, Wash., on the next steps to developing the digital ants technology, which the team has been working on for several years. The approach caught the attention of Scientific American magazine in 2010. The magazine then deemed “digital ants” one of the “ten technologies that have the power to change our lives.”

“The power grid is probably more vulnerable to cyber attacks than security experts would like to admit,” Fulp said, as quoted by King. “A cyber attack can have a real physical result of shutting off power to a city or a nuclear power plant.”

Unlike traditional, static security programs, digital ants wander through computer networks and track down computer worms and programs designed to steal information. Once a digital ant detects a threat, it calls an army of ants to converge at that location, which then attracts the attention of human operators.

“The idea is to deploy thousands of different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat,” Fulp said in the article. “As they move about the network, they leave digital trails modeled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants. Each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. Stronger scent trails attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection.”

Fulp has received nearly $250,000 in grants from PNNL/Battelle Memorial Institute for his ongoing research.

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