DHS to expand cybersecurity program for researchers

Officials believe giving cyber specialists access to information about real-world network attacks could lead to better solutions to protecting computers.

The Homeland Security Department asked on Wednesday for comments on the latest version of forms that determine who is eligible to access a repository of computer and network data for cybersecurity research and development.

DHS posted a notice in the Federal Register inviting comments on a package of forms it uses to give individuals access to data about cybersecurity incidents that targeted the computer networks of organizations, including academia, industry and nonprofits, that participate in the program.

The forms, which were updated in April, support the Protected Repository for the Defense of Infrastructure Against Cyber Threats program, or PREDICT. Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate created the program to make information on real cyberattacks available to researchers and developers so they can test technology solutions. The program's portal, which launched 18 months ago, is managed by the nonprofit research institute RTI, and the data is housed in servers at five different data center sites.

"We provide the marriage between the researcher looking for data and the data provider," said Douglas Maughan, program manager within the command, control and interoperability division of the directorate. "A lot of organizations want to help the research community, because quality research can help them [in return]. But typically that means doing a nondisclosure agreement with each. If we have this system built, they don't have to deal with these researchers one on one."

The onus is on the organization to strip out information that could compromise personal privacy and to ensure providing the cyber data doesn't violate corporate policy, he said. More than 100 data sets are stored in the repository, provided primarily by universities and nonprofit organizations. Only one commercial organization submits information to the program, although DHS hopes to convince more companies to do so.

Among the data sets stored in the repository is network traffic information, including source and destination IP addresses, which researchers can analyze to learn more about denial of service attacks that temporarily block access to a network, for example. Also included is black hole address space data -- network packets destined for unused Web addresses that often are linked to malicious Internet activity.

Phase 2 of the program, which DHS recently started, will incorporate what Maughan called "controversial data sets," which could be more sensitive and include personally identifiable information. DHS officials said their goal is to help researchers create ways to protect data. Maughan said legal and privacy considerations are taken seriously to ensure no data is compromised.

"This has been a crawl, walk, run process, and we're between crawl and walk -- trying to do better marketing to get the word out, and gathering examples from the research community of how they've [utilized data from our program] to show value," he says.