DARPA wants innovative research to mind the GAPS

The military research outfit wants to find a better way to securely transfer sensitive data from air-gapped DOD systems to less secure, internet-facing ones.

locked network (sdecoret/Shutterstock.com)

Air gaps are considered a secure way of isolating sensitive IT systems, but they're inconvenient and carry their own set of risks. Now, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking for hardware and software security innovations that can better track and protect sensitive data as it moves from highly secure systems to insecure ones.

In a Jan. 4 broad agency announcement, the Microsystems Technology Office at DARPA put out a call for research proposals around "hardware and software architectures with physically provable guarantees to isolate high risk transactions and to enable systems with multilevel data security assertions."

The $54 million program, dubbed the "Guaranteed Architecture for Physical Security" or GAPS, is designed to address a security hole that lets hackers potentially gain access to data from an air-gapped system as it is being moved or transferred to other internet-facing systems.

"Today, modern computing systems are incapable of creating sufficient security protections such that they can be trusted with the most sensitive data while simultaneously being exposed to untrusted data streams," the notice reads.

While an air-gapped system can protect data at rest, a completely isolated system or computer can often be of limited value. Many must eventually interface with the internet indirectly or send and receive data from internet-connected systems where they are more vulnerable to a range of attacks. In 2015, a Chatham House report found a variety of methods through which air-gapped systems for nuclear power plants and other industrial control systems can be compromised, such as the use of physical flash drives that install malware and long-forgotten, unaccounted VPNs and other connections inherent in many older ICS networks.

As security researcher Bruce Schneier wrote in 2013, air-gaps are "conceptually simple, but they're hard to maintain in practice."

"The truth is that nobody wants a computer that never receives files from the Internet and never sends files out into the Internet," wrote Schneier. "What they want is a computer that's not directly connected to the Internet, albeit with some secure way of moving files on and off. But every time a file moves back or forth, there's the potential for attack."

That's essentially the dilemma DARPA is attempting to solve. Not only does the agency believe that current market capabilities are insufficient to verifiably and securely establish such file transfers between DOD systems with differing levels of security, but it believes the problem will only get worse as operational systems become more complex in the future.

As such, the office wants to approach the problem from a new perspective, ruling out current technologies and solutions like virtual machine managers, diodes or human fusion. Instead, the agency wants a better way to physically track the data it needs to protect.

"GAPS will create secure hardware and software co-design tools that physically isolate high risk transactions during both system design and system build, and track that such protections are physically enforced at runtime," the solicitation reads. "If a user wants to compute on sensitive data, the only true assurance is to physically track where the data is and guard all high-risk transactions."

The project will be split up into three technical areas: components and interfaces, co-design tools and integration and validation. DARPA wants compatibility across the board, so selected vendors or organizations will be required to sign an agreement to communicate and collaborate with each other throughout the project, and the notice encourages the use of combined submissions. Responses are due March 22.