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UF partners with CIA on improving cybersecurity


From the shutdown of an oil pipeline to disrupted access to government, business and healthcare system databases, high-profile cyberattacks in 2021 prompted heightened interest in improving the nation’s cybersecurity.

Answers on how to do that may come from a collaboration between the University of Florida and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the first of its kind in the nation.

The university and the CIA have entered an agreement to study how artificial intelligence and machine learning applications (AIML) can be used to detect and deter malicious agents that infiltrate computer networks. The work will be carried out by researchers associated with UF’s Florida Institute for National Security.

“If you’re operating retroactively in cybersecurity, oftentimes you are too late,” said Damon Woodard, principal researcher and newly appointed director of the Florida Institute for National Security. “This collaboration will accelerate our ability to understand and expand the research on AI applications of AIML to cybersecurity.”

One area of research will be on reinforcement learning, which attempts to mimic how humans learn through trial-and-error. Woodard said little work has been done on this method of machine learning’s application to cybersecurity problems. Researchers will explore this technology on simple problems and then see if solutions can be scaled up.

“In terms of a cyberattack, you are trying to figure out what the person attacking you is trying to do so you can anticipate and make adjustments on your side to stop them,” Woodard said.

The Identity Theft Resource Center reported in January there were 1,603 cyberattack-related data breaches in 2021, an increase of about 500 over the previous year. Ransomware attacks are also on the rise, doubling in each of the past two years, the nationally recognized nonprofit organization said.

The hope, Woodard said, is the work will revolutionize the way the world thinks about cybersecurity and provide insights and technologies that can better protect data and strengthen security across both the government and private sectors. The team also includes two UF graduate students.

“I’m excited to see the ramifications of this project in the security domain as well as in other domains, such as biomedical and business,” said Olivia Dizon-Paradis, a doctoral student in Electrical and Computer Engineering. “I’m hoping my involvement in this project will help jumpstart my research career in lifelong machine learning.”

Stephen Wormald, also a doctoral student in Electrical and Computer Engineering, said he was excited about being able to work with leading researchers to develop state-of-the-art technology.

“My involvement will develop personal skills in research, writing and mathematics that I can use long-term in industry,” Wormald said. “I hope to apply my skills to develop technology and study basic research problems that improve individuals’ quality of life.”

The Florida Institute for National Security was launched in May with the goal of taking a leading role in multidisciplinary research on national security through long-term partnerships with industry, academe and government that lead to commercial products and spin-off companies.

The project is the latest initiative in UF’s sweeping focus on artificial intelligence, a $1 billion effort to advance AI across the curriculum and in research and industry. The university’s initiative — and the work of the institute — is aided by access to the HiPerGator supercomputer.

Woodard said working with the CIA offers the opportunity to share project expertise and provides exposure to many diverse challenges.

“Working with the CIA is a major benefit because they present interesting constraints in cybersecurity,” Woodard said. “You’re dealing with worst-case scenarios to prepare for everything from low-quality data to low-resolution images. This level of research allows us to reach our full capacity for understanding potential shortcomings.”

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