Peering into the cyber future

A new IARPA program looks to fund technology that can anticipate rather than react to cyber threats.

Shutterstock image: cyber eye.

The intelligence community’s R&D arm wants industry researchers to predict cyberattacks rather than just respond to them.

Existing cyber defense methods such as signature-based detection "haven't adequately enabled cybersecurity practitioners to get ahead of these threats," said Robert Rahmer, a program manager at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. "So this has led to an industry that's really invested heavily in analyzing the effects or symptoms of cyberattacks instead of analyzing [and] mitigating the cause."

Rahmer leads IARPA's Cyber-attack Automated Unconventional Sensor Environment (CAUSE) program, which will fund what the organization calls "unconventional" techniques for predicting cyberattacks.

Among the technology possibly cultivated by the CAUSE program are tools to harvest big data and models for threat forecasting. "Successful proposers will combine cutting-edge research with the ability to develop robust forecasting capabilities from multiple sensors not typically used in the cyber domain," says an IARPA description of the CAUSE program.

CAUSE’s goal is to use automated methods to detect cyber threats "hours to weeks earlier" than current methods, Rahmer said. Detection time has been an issue in cyberattacks affecting federal agencies. It was reportedly months before U.S. Investigations Services, formerly the government’s top security-clearance contractor, noticed hackers had breached the firm’s computer networks.

Rahmer expects IARPA to issue a broad agency announcement for the CAUSE program by the end of fiscal 2015. Proposals will be evaluated based on the timeliness and level of detail of their warnings of cyberattacks, he said. The technology produced by the CAUSE program could be made available to intelligence agencies and the private sector, he added. Rahmer declined to say how much money is allocated for the program.

IARPA held a proposers day Jan. 21 that Rahmer said was attended by about 150 people from industry and academia. One of a handful of initial proposals for the program comes from R&D nonprofit Battelle, which is looking to further develop software that collects and analyzes media to model adversaries' online behavior. Battelle’s goal is to strip away the anonymity relied on in the dark corners of the Internet.

The start of the CAUSE program comes as the intelligence community moves to dedicate new resources to cybersecurity. CIA Director John Brennan on March 6 announced the agency would create a cyber directorate to boost the "integration of our digital and cyber capabilities across all of our mission areas." Last month, the White House established a cyber-threat agency, to be housed at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to fuse intelligence to give agencies a clearer view of cyber-threat patterns.