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Computer Viruses and Human Viruses: Strengthening Our Defenses

From UVA Explorations
April 28, 2002

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, the public became acutely aware of a potentially lethal problem that has festered for years. Not only did the attacks cause great loss of life and property, but Americans were shocked into the realization that terrorists had "broken in," entered our borders, moved about freely, and had largely planned and executed their attacks from inside the United States.

Many security experts believe that future attacks will be on our infrastructure, particularly targeted at the computer systems that control electric power grids, communications systems, financial transactions, and emergency government services. These attacks most likely will be conducted "inside" because of the vulnerability of networked information technology systems.

"Computer security systems were originally designed in the 1960s when computers were large independent machines in air-conditioned rooms," said Anita K. Jones, the University of Virginia's Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Computer Science. "If the room was locked, that was the security system. It was basically a castle with a moat and high walls. As long as the enemy was kept out, the system was secure. Today's computers are networked through the Internet, with billions of computers linked together. This means the enemy can get inside and effectively go anywhere and do anything. The old perimeter defense model is obsolete, but is still being used. This puts at risk infrastructures that are key to the functioning of society."

Jones says new research is needed to focus on the development of software with layered defense systems, allowing limited selected activities, combined with sophisticated firewalls to protect applications and information. These systems will require a complexity far exceeding anything available today, and will need constant enhancement.

"The nation has not invested enough in security research for computing," Jones said. "We need to develop a new security paradigm that will be effective in the networked world, and this research will have to be done at universities, where the most fundamental and long-range problems are solved."

Jones has worked in computer science research and development, and specifically on computer security, throughout her career in academia, industry, and government. She is a former director of defense research and engineering at the Pentagon, where she oversaw a multibillion-dollar research program. She has served on numerous advisory boards to the government and for industry. Recently she completed a defense department study on future defense science and technology that included a focus on bioterrorism.

"Bioterrorism is another great threat to our security, again, because of our vulnerabilities," Jones said. "A biological attack could be effective because we have a poor infrastructure for fielding an immediate therapeutic response. My committee recommended that the health systems focus on developing a computational method for identifying candidate drugs that would successfully treat mass infections with the fewest side effects. In the event of an attack, we will need to drastically compress the clinical trial period between describing a pathogen and coming up with a treatment."

Beyond responding to terrorist attacks and building defenses, Jones said all nations must work together to make terrorism unacceptable, wherever it is conducted. "This nation needs to take a lead role in cultivating a world culture in which terrorism is an unacceptable culture. We must unite the world in driving out terrorists.

"In the wake of September 11, the threat has not changed, but the public has become acutely aware of how dire is the situation," Jones added. "I hope this will wake us up to our vulnerabilities, and move us to take decisive action toward more effective security, while maintaining a free and open society."


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