SYMANTEC’S CYBER SYMPOSIUM – ‘SCARY STUFF’- ALL IN THE MIND
By Yvonne Headington
03 Mar 11. The brain computer interface (BCI) will be a “major part of the future of the internet” according to Richard Aldrich, Professor of International Security at Warwick University. Addressing Symantec’s Cyber Symposium, held in London on 23 February, Professor Aldrich pointed out that organisations such as the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) in the US have been funding research into BCI since the 1970s but technological breakthroughs are now happening all the time.
The term BCI is often used to cover rudimentary systems that read brainwaves as well as those that connect to the nervous system (such as limb implants). Systems that connect to the cortex of the brain however are “highly controversial”. Work in this field is mainly being pioneered within the medical community but such systems also have potential military applications. “Some of this stuff has been going on for a while” says Professor Aldrich “but I don’t think people are joining the dots. The brain is the new frontier of military research”.
One particular area of interest is the development of silent communications for front line troops. Last year the US Army Research Office awarded the University of California at Irvine a $4 million contract to research synthetic telepathy or ‘thought helmets’ based on the decoding of EEG (electroencephalograph) brain signals.
The “most scary stuff” according to Professor Aldrich, is probably the development of hybrid cybernetic organisms. Essentially, it is relatively easier to wire-up electronic systems to primitive organisms, such as insects, than it is to the complex human brain. DARPA’s HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect – Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) programme, for instance, is aimed at developing machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside an insect at the larva stage of metamorphosis.
Since insects also come with their own engines and navigation system, they have the potential for providing ideal miniature surveillance platforms that can be controlled remotely – and eventually armed. Research into cybernetic organisms is at an early stage but Professor Aldrich says that: “we are probably seeing deployable reconnaissance creatures now”. Ten years down the line there will be “swarms of robo-insects on the battlefield”.
Some pretty scary statistics, on the more familiar threat to computer-based information security, were presented by Doctor Chris Hankin, Director of the Institute for Security Science and Technology at Imperial College London. 75% of enterprises experienced some form of cyber attack during 2009, according to Symantec research, while 60% of exposed ‘entities’ were compromised by hacking attacks. Identity theft alone costs the UK an estimated £1.2 billion each year ( compared with $50 billion in the US). Although cyber security has tended to focus on technical and cultural solutions, new ways of understanding and tackling the threat are beginning to emerge.
The US Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) is currently investing in several areas of research in support of the Comprehensive National Cyber Initiative (CNCI). These areas include: cyber economics (to gain a better understanding of the financial incentive to commit cyber attacks); digital provenance (tracking and authenticating where data comes from); hardware-enabled trust (revising the way hardware is designed to improve resilience); moving-target defence (changing a system’s attack surface, for instance by ensuring that the profile of a website constantly changes in order to make it less susceptible to attack) and nature-inspired cyber health (learning from immunology to improve artificial systems’ ability to resist and recover from viruses).
Dr Hankin also drew attention to UK efforts to combat cyber threats through the adoption of a Cyber