Defence of the cyber realm

Information underpins modern life. To protect it, a scheme is seeking ideas from all fields, writes Neha Popat

March 5, 2009

Research funding is available for academics in any field who believe they can tackle "one of the greatest challenges to the way we live and work" - protecting our digital infrastructure from attack.

At least £6 million will be offered for collaborative research projects that seek to identify and eliminate vulnerabilities in the information systems that allow businesses, governments and the economy itself to function.

The cash comes from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the government-funded body that invests in business-led research and development, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Additional money could be provided by the Economic and Social Research Council for high-quality bids.

"Information is the lifeblood of our day-to-day existence," said Andrew Tyrer, network security innovation platform leader at the TSB. "Failure to predict weaknesses and future vulnerabilities in the way these systems grow and develop could lead to problems in every aspect of modern society.

"Our competition will seek to address what we consider to be one of the greatest challenges to the way we live and work."

The funding scheme, called Information Infrastructure Protection, is designed to encourage collaboration between individuals and organisations, and provide academics with the business skills they need to turn their research into practical applications.

"There is already pioneering academic thinking in this area. The challenge is to take that thinking... and turn it into a tangible product or solution to this problem.

"The way we are doing that is (by) trying to link the best academic expertise with the best business expertise," Mr Tyrer said.

The project also presents the opportunity for different disciplines to collaborate.

Robin Bloomfield, professor of software and system dependability at City University London, produced a report for the TSB that outlined the existing capabilities and future safety requirements of global information systems.

He believes that interdisciplinary collaboration is essential to the success of the project. "We're talking about understanding social systems, engineering systems, digital systems and social and political interactions, so it is a very broad canvas."

This is reflected in the entry criteria, which will accept applicants from any academic field.

The work could be relevant to a variety of disciplines, including engineering, finance, healthcare, IT, pharmaceuticals, risk assessment and transport.

"Our rail network, for example, relies on... signalling infrastructure. If this goes wrong, it could have dire consequences," Mr Tyrer said.

He added that as technology develops and systems become more complex, predicting weaknesses becomes much more difficult.

"The UK economy is being... driven by the digital community. These large infrastructures... are becoming more and more complex, and therefore (it is) very hard... to see where the vulnerabilities might be," he said.

The increased connectivity between digital information systems has left them more susceptible to attack, increasing opportunities for people to exploit their weaknesses.

This threat is exacerbated by the fact that currently there are no tools to adequately trace flaws in such complex infrastructure, Mr Tyrer added.

As a result, one area of focus will be the development of predictive modelling tools to allow Government and businesses to foresee and manage risks.

"There is currently a gap in people's understanding and modelling capability in this area," Professor Bloomfield said. "It is really important to have a research base that can address these issues."

Information Infrastructure Protection is the UK's only publicly funded research into network security, and it is expected that about 15 to 20 schemes will be funded.

The value of each grant will be determined only after all the proposals have been reviewed independently.

There are separate entry procedures for bids above and below £150,000, with the latter subject to a "fast-track" process.

A number of initiatives have been designed to encourage participation, especially from small to medium-sized enterprises. These include a series of information days for less experienced applicants and a social-networking service to encourage collaboration.

The competition opens on 16 March.

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