DeterLab’s Cyber ‘Racetrack’ Battles Computer Hackers

BY Tom Bearden  April 16, 2012 at 4:15 PM EST

UCLA computer science graduate student Erik Kline really enjoys his studies.
That’s partly because he has access to a massive computer test bed — sort of a mini-Internet where he and other researchers can safely stage computer attacks and counterattacks. “It’s kind of fun to be able to go, ‘Oh, that guy, I don’t like him. Let me just send my 500 minions after him,’” Kline said with a gleam in his eye.

The “minions” are actually 500 computers collectively known as DeterLab. Half of them are located at the University of Southern California’s Marina del Rey campus, and the other half at the University of California, Berkeley.

DeterLab computers

DeterLab was established in 2003 with money from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security. Network Research Director John Wroclawski said DeterLab is a little like a racetrack that manufacturers can go to test out new automotive ideas. But he said DeterLab is a lot more sophisticated. For example, in his analogy, the racetrack would have a machine to throw snow on the road, another to spray water, and an artificial sun to blind the driver as he came around a corner.

“I’d put speedometers and things that measure how fast the car was going and how hard it could turn and what happened when you put the brakes on,” Wroclawski said. “And that’s really the right analogy. So we’re building not just a racetrack, but a racetrack that can create all sorts of conditions that the car would face and also has a lot of instrumentation to understand what happens when that car faces that.”

DeterLab was built to bring long-established scientific principles of experimentation and verification to a field that has often focused only on defeating the most recent threats. The hope is to build solutions that will prevent attacks by terrorists on potential targets such as power grids, banks, train systems and other parts of the national infrastructure that are controlled by computers.

Deputy Director Terry Benzel doesn’t want to overstate the problem but worries about its future. “I have to say it’s very sad that despite millions and millions of dollars of government investment in cyber security, and industry investment in cyber security, we are still as a nation wholly vulnerable. No question about it,” she said.

For more on the DeterLab project, watch the report from Monday’s NewsHour broadcast: