Digital ants protect critical infrastructure

Wake Forest University security expert developed “digital ants” to protect critical networks; unlike traditional security approaches, which are static, digital ants wander through computer networks looking for threats such as computer worms, self-replicating programs designed to steal information or facilitate unauthorized use of computers; when a digital ant detects a threat, it summons an army of ants to converge at that location, drawing the attention of human operators to investigate

“The idea is to deploy thousands of different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat,” Fulp said. “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.”

The concept has proven successful in testing on a small scale, but will it still work when it’s scaled up to protect something as large and complex as the nation’s power grid? Fulp and two of his students — computer science graduate students Michael Crouse and Jacob White — are working this summer with scientists at PNNL and from the University of California at Davis to answer that question. Even using PNNL’s vast computer platforms, they can only rely on computer simulations to predict the ants’ “behavior” up to a point.

“In nature, we know that ants defend against threats very successfully,” Fulp said. “They can ramp up their defense rapidly, and then resume routine behavior quickly after an intruder has been stopped. We’re trying to achieve that same framework in a computer system.”

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