WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Wake Forest University computer science professor Errin Fulp aims to protect future networks from viruses, worms and other threats with software that utilizes armies of so-called “digital ants.”

“The idea is to deploy thousands of different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat,” Fulp says. “As they move about the network, they leave digital trails modeled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants. Each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. Stronger scent trails attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection.”

Fulp currently is focusing on threats to the power grid, especially as more and more devices are linked to it through “smart grid” and other digital technologies. He currently is working with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., on the digital ants technology. The lab is part of the US Department of Energy.

The ants concept is being developed as an alternative to static network defenses. The PNNL explains the concept this way: “a framework for decentralized coordination based on the eusocial behaviors seen in ant colonies. The eusocial organization in the ant colony provides a highly adaptive common defense that achieves emergent behavior via stygmergic communication. We have applied these ant behaviors to cyber security in our Ant-Based Cyber Defense where humans and various software agents share the responsibilities of securing an infrastructure comprised of enclaves that belong to member organizations.”

Glenn Fink, a senior research scientist at PNNL, developed the ants concept and asked Fulp to become part of the project, given Fulp’s work in faster computer scanning technology based on parallel processing.

“When that network connects to a power source, which connects to the smart grid, you have a jumping off point” for computer viruses, Fulp explained. “A cyber attack can have a real physical result of shutting off power to a city or a nuclear power plant.”

Fulp has worked with the lab for several years in developing the ants concept and has received some $250,000 in grants. A published expert in security and computer networks, Fulp says the ants concept could be utilized in other utility networks.

“In nature, we know that ants defend against threats very successfully,” Fulp said. “They can ramp up their defense rapidly, and then resume routine behavior quickly after an intruder has been stopped. We’re trying to achieve that same framework in a computer system.”

The ants have been used in small-scale testing thus far.

Fore more about the digital ants concept, read here.

Scientific American offers insight here.

The concept was one of Scientific American’s 10 “World Changing Ideas” for 2010. Fore more, read here. (Subscription required for full article access.)

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