Sandia Draws From Nuclear Science in Inaugurating New Cyber Lab

A Sandia reseracher inspects a Thunderbird supercomputer component.

A Sandia reseracher inspects a Thunderbird supercomputer component. Sandia National Laboratories

Experience with supercomputing, cryptography and self-contained microelectronics design makes the lab a leader in virtual defense systems.

Sandia National Laboratories on Tuesday will inaugurate a cybersecurity center to perform offensive and defensive warfighting techniques that onsite nuclear weapons scientists have been practicing for decades.

The Cybersecurity Engineering Research Laboratory, which began operating in 2011, draws from nuclear research and development to test hardware vulnerabilities in closed facilities and model cyberweapons on supercomputers, Sandia officials said. Cybersecurity is one of the New Mexico-based lab’s defense systems missions. 

“Sandia’s cyber R&D capabilities are rooted in our [nuclear weapons] mission, and specifically weapons use-control engineering and adversarial threat assessment,” said Ben Cook, a senior manager for Sandia’s research and development science and engineering group.

Officials on Tuesday are expected to showcase several of the new lab’s capabilities in deflecting cyberattacks against citizens, businesses and governments. "Sandia was doing cyber before the term cyberspace existed," states the national laboratory's website.  

One demonstration will have students don electrode-studded caps that record the electrical activity of the brain, normally to spot tumors.  In this situation, the electroencephalograph headwear will track brain activity changes when students are doing math work to document and compare the skill level of cyber defenders.

Separately, a giant computer screen will illustrate how researchers cull huge amounts of email traffic to spot signs of malicious code, before the messages can do harm. “We are recognized leaders in high-performance computing R&D, a capability developed to do physics-based modeling and simulation related to our [nuclear weapons] mission that we’re now applying to do scalable informatics to identify anomalies in network and other data,” Cook said.

Various other federal investments over the years have positioned Sandia as a cyber pioneer, including a self-contained microelectronics design and fabrication facility. A big concern about computer safety is that electronic components are susceptible to tampering by any one of the thousands of humans who deal with a product during the manufacturing process. At Sandia, essentially, “we can build our own computer chips in a controlled environment, mitigating supply chain risks,” Cook said.

Sandia took an early interest in cybersecurity education about 10 years ago, with the creation of a cyber defenders student internship program. Cook explained, “With the advent of modern microelectronics and communication systems several decades ago, Sandia had to develop a very deep understanding of cryptography and other foundational cybersecurity concepts -- ranging from the device physics to the application level -- to rigorously protect weapon systems.”

Dignitaries scheduled to formally initiate the program on Tuesday include the CEO of supercomputer maker Cray and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

In November, cyber researchers at Sandia published a study that showed it is possible to predict whether online chatter will give rise to politically motivated cyberattacks. During one experiment, analysts examined diffuse mentions of key words on social media networks in 2010, after payment processors stopped handling donations to the anti-secrets website Wikileaks. The online dynamics suggested that WikiLeaks supporters would eventually perpetrate denial of service attacks to disrupt those companies’ websites -- which is ultimately what happened.