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DARPA prepares for the next cyber-war (and how it impacts your life)

DARPA is preparing for cyber war, and while it sounds like an issue for experts, it is a problem that does AND WILL impact all of us. Here’s why you need to be up to date on the topic.

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cybersecurity

DARPA is preparing for the threat

You might not know this, but the Internet wasn’t built for you and me. Back in the 1960’s, which somehow seems like an eternity ago, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) envisioned a network of computers that could collaborate on scientific and technological research projects from coast to coast. The name given to this proto-Internet was ARPANET, and by 1969, it represented the framework and series of standards that would later become the Internet as we know it today.

These days, DARPA is still developing breakthrough technology to answer the increasingly complicated demands of global security and defense. One of those demands, inevitably, is the ever-greater risk of cyber-attacks — both from within the United States and from without. To speak plainly, the amount of stuff on the Internet makes it more and more difficult with each passing day to keep our personal information — to say nothing of state secrets — safe from prying eyes.

This tug-of-war has become something of a full-time job over at DARPA. Here’s how they’re preparing themselves — and the country at large — for the newest threats to cyber-sovereignty.

There’s no “unhackable” code

DARPA’s Arati Prabhakar and Steve Walker will be the first to tell you: “There’s no unhackable code.” That’s a bit of a mood-killer, really, but it’s also old news — the best the tech community can hope for is to make “less hackable” code, and to try to stay ahead of the cyber-criminal (“hacker,” if you prefer) community and their ever-larger bag of tricks.

In answer to rising concerns over data breaches and cyber-terrorism, DARPA has spun off a new project called High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems, or HACMS. DARPA’s formal description of HACMS and its mandate is full of not-so-helpful jargon, so let’s break it down what they’re trying to accomplish in terms that will be familiar to anybody who studied sixth-grade math.

One can think of the HACMS approach to cyber-security in terms of basic mathematics. Everybody knows the Pythagorean Theorem: a2 + b2 = c2. This theorem is accepted because it works every time it’s put to the test. This is an effective metaphor for the long-sought unicorn that is unhackable code. Think about it like this: A right triangle is “unhackable” because a2 + b2 will never equal anything other than c2. The code being developed by the HACMS works a little bit like this — not literally, mind you, but the metaphor is a good stand-in for the kind of mathematics-based algorithms they’re trying to develop.

It works because it simply cannot work any other way.

And so far, they seem to be meeting with preliminary success. When the HACMS team unearthed an effective piece of code that works along the lines described above, they gave it to a team of “professional hackers” to try out. The HACMS team stored the code on a real-life, unmanned attack helicopter to see if their team could retrieve it.

The results were extremely promising: Even after the hackers were handed access to the actual source code of the helicopter, they were unable to penetrate the main systems and retrieve the code.

The implications of these preliminary tests are enormous. Americans are a fearful lot (Why else do we have more guns than people in this country?), and right now, cyber-attacks are at the top of the list in a recent Survey of American Fears. It’s encouraging to know that the institution that brought us the Internet in the first place is making significant progress toward discovering ways to make it hack-proof. We’re not there yet, but HACMS has delivered a promising proof-of-concept.

DARPA has also recently chosen to enlist the help of the public with the Grand Cyber Challenge — a competition (with a $2 million grand prize) that encourages self-styled hackers to build software that can compromise encrypted data faster than the competition. Think of it as a digital capture the flag game: The team that manages to retrieve a particular piece of data from a closed system gets the prize money and significant bragging rights in the hacker community.

It might sound counter-intuitive, encouraging people to break encryption. But DARPA considers challenges like these to be invaluable recruiting tools. They’re always looking for the next generation of government technologists.

Security is EVERYBODY’s problem

Like much of what DARPA gets up to, HACMS feels a little bit abstract, and perhaps difficult to apply to our everyday lives. The truth, though, is a bit more complicated. With huge battles brewing between corporate America and the government, emerging forms of encryption and new approaches to cyber-security are more important for the “average consumer” than ever before. Battle lines are being drawn between companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft and the would-be surveillance state envisioned by some of the more fearful statesmen serving in Washington, D.C.

And they’re also becoming important for modern entrepreneurs.

We’ve seen egregious lapses in cyber-security before, write large across national headlines. Remember Target’s data breach? Or the Sony hack that compromised some 102 million company records in 2011? The list of “unprecedented” data breaches is a long one, and becomes more precedented with each passing day.

Two reasons a business owner should care about cyber security

First: Modern entrepreneurs have to fight an uphill battle against market fluctuations and competition alike. Knowing your proprietary company secrets are under lock and key is hugely important if you want to make it.

But there’s a second reason, and it sometimes gets overlooked. To speak plainly, your customers take it for granted that you’re looking out for them. Almost every business stores a great deal of personal information about the people they sell to: Names, credit card numbers, addresses, and on it goes. People want to be able to count on their favorite businesses to make sure criminals can’t get their compromising data without a fight.

So — yes. This is a struggle that affects all of us. The world has turned downright Orwellian while our backs were turned. There are now eyes and ears everywhere. H

ow we go about answering this challenge in the coming years will reveal quite a bit about who we are and what we really value.

#CyberWar

Megan Ray Nichols is an editorialist at The American Genius, and is a technical writer who's passionate about technology and the science. She also regularly writes at Smart Data Collective, IoT Times, and ReadWrite. Megan publishes easy to understand articles on her blog, Schooled By Science - subscribe today for weekly updates!

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An industry first: IBM launches quantum developer certification program

(TECH NEWS) Developers with quantum computing skills can now prove they’ve mastered the subject with IBM’s first-ever Quantum Developer Certification.

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Quantum developer looking out of the window with a three monitor setup open to various coding programs.

Last week, IBM announced its first-ever developer certification for programming quantum computers, which is also the quantum industry’s first.

“Our team is extremely proud to be able to offer the first-ever quantum developer certification,” a company blog post read. “We hope its availability will provide a valuable learning path for developers and stakeholders looking to prepare themselves for quantum computing in the future.”

The IBM Quantum Developer Certification focuses on IBM’s software tools, specifically Qiskit, their open-source software development kit for quantum computing. Launched in 2017, Qiskit already has over 600,000 installs. And, it’s being used by developers to develop apps, improve code, and participate in hackathons and summer schools.

While the Quantum Developer Certification is the only quantum certification IBM offers now, it won’t be the last. IBM says it is “the first of several in a series of certifications.” This is part of the company’s quantum development roadmap to build a “diverse, global, cloud-based ecosystem of developers who can bring quantum computing skills to their own communities and industries.”

Offered through the Pearson VUE platform, the Quantum Developer Certification exam is 60 questions long. The exam will test a developer’s competency in the fundamentals of quantum computing concepts. Also, it will examine if a person can use Qiskit SDK from the Python programming language to “create and execute quantum computing programs on IBM quantum computers and simulators.”

This certification is exciting for the quantum community because it will officially demonstrate a person’s mastery of quantum computing. And, for the most part, I think most of us can agree that certifying your skills looks good on resumes, and it shows employers you’re serious about your career. However, getting one can be costly. Currently, IBM doesn’t have any scholarships in place, but they say they are working on rolling one out to those who are interested in getting certified.

Along with the certification, IBM is also supporting educators to prepare the future quantum workforce. They are giving educators access to IBM Quantum tools through their Quantum Educators Program and semester-long quantum computing course, Introduction to Quantum Computing and Quantum Hardware, and its free Qiskit digital textbook.

According to a report, quantum computing is predicted to become a $65 billion industry by 2030, and IBM wants to help companies “get their workforce quantum ready” for when it does.

“With our IBM Quantum Developer Certification, IBM Quantum is offering a path for people with all development backgrounds to earn a certification in programming with Qiskit, allowing them to leverage their quantum coding skills into a potential opportunity in this exciting new workforce,” the company blog post read.

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Facebook is cracking down on Groups, here’s what you should know

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Facebook will be holding Facebook Groups who break the terms of service accountable with stricter punishments.

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Facebook Groups open on laptop in front of business woman dressed in white blouse.

In light of the capitol riots—and an increase in things like hate speech and vaccine conspiracies in the days leading up to them—Facebook will be holding Facebook Groups accountable in the days to come.

Facebook users have always had some degree of moderation, but much of that accountability has been contingent on others reporting errant behavior, often necessitating multiple reports across the board before resulting in some kind of action from the social media platform. This new initiative will put the magnifying glass over groups in general, making it harder for them to contain or endorse content that violates Facebook’s terms of use.

Penalties for breaking those terms will vary, but may include anything from restrictions to immediate removal from the platform depending on how “egregious” the offense is. Repeat offenders will eventually be removed.

Those restrictions aren’t exactly opaque, either. Facebook’s VP of engineering, Tom Alison, made the platform’s new priorities clear in a recent blog post: “Groups and members that violate our rules should have reduced privileges and reach, with restrictions getting more severe as they accrue more violations, until we remove them completely.”

This isn’t the first time that Facebook has addresses issues with their Groups system. They stopped recommending political groups to users outside of those communities back in November—something they said would not change after the election—and their push to show people who aren’t in Groups content from ones that might be interesting to them seems to be slowing.

In fact, those recommendations will be a factor in taking away power from Groups who break the guidelines. Offending Groups won’t necessarily show up in people’s recommendations—or they will show up far lower than other Groups—thus decreasing the number of people who can access them.

Facebook’s motive here is pretty clear. The social media platform has been criticized heavily in the past for everything from being lenient on hate speech to influencing political outcomes, and while it’s easy to deliberate the validity of some of those claims, it’s much harder to ignore the fact that the amount of harmful content on Facebook is debilitating—something against which they seem to be taking a firm stance with this new directive.

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Internet of Things and deep learning: How your devices are getting smarter

(TECH NEWS) The latest neural network from Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows a great bound forward for deep learning and the “Internet of Things.”

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Woman using smart phone to control other devices in home, connected to deep learning networks

The deep learning that modifies your social media and gives you Google search results is coming to your thermostat.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a deep learning system of neural networks that can be used in the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Named MCUNet, the system designs small neural networks that allow for previously unseen speed and accuracy for deep learning on IoT devices. Benefits of the system include energy savings and improved data security for devices.

Created in the early 1980s, the IoT is essentially a large group of everyday household objects that have become increasingly connected through the internet. They include smart fridges, wearable heart monitors, thermostats, and other “smart” devices. These gadgets run on microcontrollers, or computer chips with no processing system, that have very little processing power and memory. This has traditionally made it hard for deep learning to occur on IoT devices.

“How do we deploy neural nets directly on these tiny devices? It’s a new research area that’s getting very hot,” said Song Han, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at MIT who is a part of the project, “Companies like Google and ARM are all working in this direction.”

In order to achieve deep learning for IoT connected machines, Han’s group designed two specific components. The first is TinyEngine, an inference engine that directs resource management similar to an operating system would. The other is Tiny NAS, a neural architecture search algorithm. For those not well-versed in such technical terms, think of these things like a mini Windows 10 and machine learning for that smart fridge you own.

The results of these new components are promising. According to Han, MCUNet could become the new industry standard, stating that “It has huge potential.” He envisions the system has one that could help smartwatches not just monitor heartbeat and blood pressure but help analyze and explain to users what that means. It could also lead to making IoT devices far more secure than they are currently.

“A key advantage is preserving privacy,” says Han. “You don’t need to transmit the data to the cloud.”

It will still be a while until we see smart devices with deep learning capabilities, but it is all but inevitable at this point—the future we’ve all heard about is definitely on the horizon.

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