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Engineer, criminologist join forces to CRUSH black hats

Research project will uncover cybercriminals' secrets....

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An engineer and a criminologist are teaming up in a research project that aims to get a better idea of how cybercriminals operate and how to best thwart their mendacious activities.

Michel Cukier, associate professor of reliability engineering, and David Maimon, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice, both at the University of Maryland, hope their joint research project will spur innovative ideas on possible approaches to depend against hacking and malware. The two academics, both members of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center, are studying cyberattacks from two different angles: one from from the perspective of a user and the other from the perspective of an attacker.

The first phase of the study looked at the relationship between computer-network activity patterns and cybercrime trends. Some of the raw data fed into this phase of the study will include information on attacks against the University's own networks between 2007 and 2009.

Bringing in an expert on the mind of a criminal onto the study will hopefully yield insights into the social engineering aspects of many cyberattacks that technically focused security researchers might be missing, the two professors hope.

"We believe that criminological insights in the study of cybercrime are important, since they may support the development of concrete security policies that consider not only the technical element of cybercrime, but also the human component," Maimon explained.

Applying criminological rationale proposed by the "Routine Activities Perspective", successful criminal incidents happen because of motivated offenders, suitable victims, and the absence of capable guardians at a particular time and place. Applied to the field of cyberattacks, this led the researchers to hypothesise that the campus network was more likely to receive port scans and DDoS attacks during business hours than in the middle of the night or at weekends. The study of the campus data confirmed this (not especially surprising) hypothesis.

Simply by browsing sites on the web, users place the campus network at greater risk of attack. "The study shows that the human aspect needs to be included in security studies, where humans are already referred as the 'weakest link'," Cukier said.

Cukier and Maimon said the results of their research so far point towards the need for increased user education on computer security-related risks as a means to help safeguard against future attacks. Secondly they concluded cyber/security defines strategies should "rely on predictions regarding the sources of attacks, based on the network users' social backgrounds and online routines".

We can't help that next/generation application aware firewall vendors, such as Palo Alto Networks, might have thought of this already, but the finding is certainly not entirely obvious – though perhaps not the "game-changing results" that the uber-boss at the university hopes the research might lead towards.

"Michel and David's research exemplifies the interdisciplinary and comprehensive approach of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center," said Michael Hicks, director of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center, in a statement.

"Resources are not unlimited, so true solutions must consider the motivations of the actors, both attackers and defenders, as well as the technological means to thwart an attack. Michel, an engineer, and David, a criminologist, are considering both sides of this equation, with the potential for game-changing results." ®

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