World’s Most Powerful Particle Collider Taps AI to Expose Hack Attacks

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By Jesse Emspak

Thousands of scientists worldwide tap into CERN’s computer networks each day in their quest to better understand the fundamental structure of the universe. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones who want a piece of this vast pool of computing power, which serves the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. The hundreds of thousands of computers in CERN’s grid are also a prime target for hackers who want to hijack those resources to make money or attack other computer systems. But rather than engaging in a perpetual game of hide-and-seek with these cyber intruders via conventional security systems, CERN scientists are turning to artificial intelligence to help them outsmart their online opponents.

Current detection systems typically spot attacks on networks by scanning incoming data for known viruses and other types of malicious code. But these systems are relatively useless against new and unfamiliar threats. Given how quickly malware changes these days, CERN is developing new systems that use machine learning to recognize and report abnormal network traffic to an administrator. For example, a system might learn to flag traffic that requires an uncharacteristically large amount of bandwidth, uses the incorrect procedure when it tries to enter the network (much like using the wrong secret knock on a door) or seeks network access via an unauthorized port (essentially trying to get in through a door that is off-limits).

CERN’s cybersecurity department is training its AI software to learn the difference between normal and dubious behavior on the network, and to then alert staff via phone text, e-mail or computer message of any potential threat. The system could even be automated to shut down suspicious activity on its own, says Andres Gomez, lead author of a paper describing the new cybersecurity framework.

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