In Box

Diversity Defense

Viruses. Worms. It seems computers are sick more often than humans. To combat high-tech ailments, researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and Carnegie Mellon University have launched a three-year, $750,000 research project seeking to mimic nature’s biodiversity with "cyberdiversity." In nature, diseases are deadlier when they strike groups of genetically similar organisms. The ...

Viruses. Worms. It seems computers are sick more often than humans. To combat high-tech ailments, researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and Carnegie Mellon University have launched a three-year, $750,000 research project seeking to mimic nature’s biodiversity with "cyberdiversity."

In nature, diseases are deadlier when they strike groups of genetically similar organisms. The same principle applies to computer viruses, especially because 90 percent of the world’s computers run on Microsoft Windows software. In July 2001, the Internet worm Code Red hit more than 300,000 computers worldwide in less than 13 hours by seizing on a Microsoft vulnerability.

With cyberdiversity, different versions of the same software would have genetically dissimilar vulnerabilities. "Imagine programs that compute three plus one and two plus two but give you the same result of four," says Carl Landwehr, the National Science Foundation program director overseeing the grant that funds the cyberdiversity research. "They might appear all the same… but the system as a whole is much less vulnerable."

Will cyberdiversity discourage determined hackers? "If [hackers] have to re-engineer attack[s] each time, it increases their time and cost," says UNM computer scientist Stephanie Forrest. "But just because you invent penicillin, [it] doesn’t mean that all infections are going to go away."

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