Summer Research Team Helps Devise Strategies to Manage and Reduce Cyber threats

Dr. Mina Guirguis, Darryl Balderas, & Noah Dunstatter
In the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Summer Research Team Program, computer science professor Mina Guirguis, Ph.D., (middle) and two of his students, Darryl Balderas (left) and Noah Dunstatter, developed algorithms that help cyber analysts in the U.S. Air Force identify and respond to imminent cyberthreats.

Hackers are having a heyday.

As Americans increasingly funnel vulnerable personal information into online banking, mobile apps, emails and online shopping sites, hackers are becoming increasingly adept at breaking even the strongest firewalls. The U.S. federal government and military bases practice constant vigilance: a data breach at this level could threaten national security and put millions of Americans at risk.

This past summer in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team (SRT) Program for Minority Serving Institutions, a team from Texas State University conducted research that could help government and private industry avoid debilitating data breaches and cyberattacks in the future. Their research is especially critical as smart grids, automatic pilot vehicles, remote-monitored intensive care units in hospitals, and other “cyber-physical systems” that utilize cyberspace for functionality gain popularity.

“As we rely more and more on ‘smart’ infrastructure, ‘smart’ transportation and ‘smart’ health—terms used to describe the growing omnipresence of technology—ensuring the security and safety of these systems becomes a crucial goal,” said computer science professor Mina Guirguis, Ph.D. “Our research helps safeguard such systems against cyberattacks through the proper handling of cyberthreats that arise when these systems are attacked.”

The purpose of the DHS SRT Program is to increase and enhance the scientific leadership at Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) in research areas that support the mission and goals of DHS.

This program provides faculty and student research teams the opportunity to conduct research at the university-based DHS Centers of Excellence (DHS Centers). The SRT Program and DHS Centers are sponsored by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate Office of University Programs.

At the University of Southern California’s (USC) National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE), Guirguis led a student team comprised of seniors Noah Dunstatter and Darryl Balderas to develop strategies that help U.S. Air Force cyberanalysts. The analysts investigate suspicious activity and prioritize the abundant amount of cyber alerts they receive.

USC computer science professor Milind Tambe, Ph.D. mentored the team, which also included Capt. Solomon Sonya from the Air Force Academy and USC Ph.D. student Aaron Schlenker. The team developed a “game-theoretical” framework that looks at the interaction between an adversary and a defender.

The defender assigns analysts to incoming alerts while the adversary, the hacker, seeks the most efficient attack method. They modeled the game as a Stackelberg zero-sum game, a term used to describe a strategic model where the leading player moves first and the other player moves sequentially.

By the end of the summer, the team had developed algorithms that were more effective at identifying cyber alerts that warrant immediate attention than the methods currently used.

As team leader, Guirguis facilitated discussions, tracked the team’s progress, provided hands-on instruction, and encouraged the team to attend on-site talks and conferences. He also served as the liaison between Dunstatter and Balderas and key players in the game theory field.

“It was great seeing how things come together when each team member contributes his or her own experience and skills,” said Guirguis. “The DHS SRT MSI experience asserted how exciting research is for undergraduate students and how their motivation and dedication to the project lead to their personal development and project success.”

Not only did Dunstatter and Balderas acquire unparalleled, real-world experience in the complex, dynamic field of game theory, they also honed their technical communication and teamwork skills.

“I learned so much in the DHS SRT MSI Program I thought my head might explode—in a good way. The learning was challenging, which is maybe why it was so enjoyable,” said Dunstatter, adding that he and Balderas became good friends over the course of the summer. “It was fun having a peer present who was going through the same shock and awe as I was.”

Team members are submitting their research to the Sixteenth International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multi-agent Systems (AAMAS) in Brazil in May 2017 and will likely submit it to a journal publication after the conference.

Guirguis has maintained a collaboration with the researchers at CREATE and looks forward to forging similar collaborations in the future by participating in additional DHS SRT MSI programs.

Dunstatter and Balderas recommend the program wholeheartedly.

“After I got back to Texas State, I told everyone about the DHS SRT MSI Program. It was a life changer and positively impacted me professionally and personally,” said Balderas, who is now planning to pursue an advanced degree in electrical engineering, his current major.

Dunstatter has decided to pursue a U.S. Air Force program for cyberanalysts because of a recommendation from Capt. Sonya, one of the team’s key contacts.

“My time in the DHS SRT MSI Program definitely helped me get a better idea of what I want to do. My overall impression is that the program is amazing. Everyone at CREATE was very friendly, laid back, and ready to drop knowledge,” said Dunstatter. “I really can’t think of one negative thing to say about my experience. Oh, except the lab needed more Folgers® and less decaf.”

The DHS SRT Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE administers this program through an interagency agreement between DOE and DHS. ORISE is managed by ORAU for DOE.