UArizona Researchers Go on Offense, Defense in Battle Against Hackers

Two National Science Foundation grants totaling $1.5 million will allow University of Arizona researchers to be more aggressive in the battle against hackers.
Dec. 3, 2019
Hsinchun Chen
Hsinchun Chen

The global hacker community continues to grow and evolve, constantly finding new targets and methods of attack. University of Arizona-led teams will be more proactive in the battle against cyberthreats thanks to nearly $1.5 million in grants from the National Science Foundation.

The first grant, for nearly $1 million, will support research contributing to an NSF program designed to protect high-tech scientific instruments from cyberattacks. Hsinchun Chen, Regents Professor of management information systems at the Eller College of Management, says the NSF's Cybersecurity Innovation for Cyberinfrastructure program is all about protecting intellectual property, which hackers can hold for ransom or sell on the darknet.

"You have infrastructure for people to collect data from instruments like telescopes," Chen said. "Scientists use that to collaborate in an open environment. Any environment that is open has security flaws."

A major hurdle to protecting scientific instruments, Chen said, is that the risks to science facilities have not been properly analyzed. He will lead a team using artificial intelligence to study hackers and categorize hundreds of thousands of risks, then connect those risks to two partner facilities at the University of Arizona.

Chen's team is working with CyVerse, a national cyberinfrastructure project led by the University of Arizona, and the Biosphere 2 Landscape Evolution Observatory project. CyVerse develops infrastructure for life sciences research and had researchers involved in this year's black hole imaging. Biosphere 2's LEO project collects data from manmade landscapes to study issues including water supply and how climate change will impact arid ecosystems.

The team will comb through hacker forums to find software tools designed to take advantage of computer system flaws, scan CyVerse and LEO internal and external networks, and then link specific tools found in the forums to specific network vulnerabilities.

"The University of Arizona is a leader in scientific discovery, and we are actively working on solutions to the world's biggest challenges. To do that, it is imperative to keep our state-of-the-art instruments safe from cyberattacks," said UArizona President Robert C. Robbins. "Hsinchun Chen is once again at the forefront of innovation in cybersecurity infrastructure, and this funding will help ensure the data and discoveries at CyVerse and Biosphere 2 are protected, which ultimately enables our researchers to keep working toward a bright future for us all."

Chen's co-principal investigators on the project include: Mark Patton, senior lecturer in management information systems; Peter Troch, science director at Biosphere 2; Edwin Skidmore, director of infrastructure at the BIO5 Institute, which houses CyVerse; and Sagar Samtani, assistant professor in the University of South Florida information systems and decision sciences department and one of Chen's former students.

Chen is also leading an effort to improve the process of collecting and analyzing data from international hacker communities. The NSF, through its Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace program, has awarded a $500,000 grant to Chen and a team of researchers to gather and analyze data on emerging threats in international hacker markets operating in Russia and China.

"We're creating infrastructure and technologies based on artificial intelligence to study darknet markets," Chen said, "meaning the places where you can buy credit cards, malware to target particular industries or government, service to hack other people, opioids, drugs, weapons — it's all part of the dark web."

The effort will focus on developing techniques to address challenges in combating international hacking operations, including the ability to collect massive amounts of data and understand common hacker terms and concepts in other countries and languages.

Chen's co-principal investigator on the research is Weifing Li, assistant professor of management information systems at the University of Georgia.