Cyber Security's Inspired Evolution

IGERT / CRISSP Kickoff Workshop Outlines a Novel Approach to Security and Privacy Research and Education

Matt Tierney chats with his advisors Lakshminarayanan Subramanian and Helen Nissenbaum as he prepares to present his research at the IGERT/CRISSP Kickoff Workshop

Cyber crimes, breakdowns in information security and lapses in privacy don’t happen in a vacuum, so neither should researchers’ efforts to combat these issues. 

That is the idea behind an innovative program that brought together NYU and NYU-Poly faculty and students from a variety of disciplines at the IGERT/CRISSP Kickoff Workshop 2011, held Friday, September 9, at NYU’s Warren Weaver Hall. Unlike the traditional technical approach to securing cyber information and privacy, the new program takes a holistic approach by encompassing economics, public policy, law, business, psychology and the social sciences. The Kickoff Workshop was designed to introduce student researchers to faculty members who could broaden the scope of their research – and vice versa.

“We will be creating the next generation security engineers and scientists who look beyond technology to design solutions that secure our information systems,” said Nasir Memon, who is the initiative’s team leader, head of NYU-Poly’s cyber security program and professor in its Department of Computer Science and Engineering

The program builds a team of two faculty members – one technical and one in a non-engineering field – for each Ph.D. student, although undergraduates and master’s students studying cyber security also participate in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Security and Privacy (CRISSP) initiative. Participating schools include the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service; Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences; Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; NYU School of Law; Stern School of Business, NYU-Poly and the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Another grant will expand the program to NYU Abu Dhabi.

In all, 25 Ph.D. students will study for approximately two years each. Two began in the last academic year and are being joined by six others this year.

Inspiring a New Vision 

CRISSP was founded in 2009 with an NYU grant designed to seed collaborative research between NYU and NYU-Poly faculty members. In addition to supporting research, it is also creating new courses. The first began last year at NYU-Poly: Security and Psychology. CRISSP will also create summer school curricula that include seminars, and it will add an element of social responsibility to fellows’ studies by introducing a mentoring program for high school students. 

A $2.85 million National Science Foundation IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) grant is funding the Ph.D. fellowships. The IGERT grants, designed to advance interdisciplinary education for engineers and scientists, are highly competitive: Only 4 percent of all proposals receive funding. 

Helen Nissenbaum – CRISSP co-founder and director; NYU professor of media, culture and communication, and computer science; and senior faculty fellow of the Information Law Institute – said it took a tremendous amount of hard work by many people to earn the IGERT grant. 

“The fact that we have IGERT means we’re now sharing our work with each other,” she said at the workshop. “We can only achieve our potential if we work together as colleagues.” 

The Future of Cyber Security

At the Kickoff Workshop, about 50 students and faculty came to hear about projects their colleagues are working on and to share ideas. Students and faculty presented a diversity of projects, ranging from the security of implantable medical devices to the dynamics of social psychology in game systems. Keynote speaker was Lorrie Faith Cranor, director of Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory.

Matt Tierney, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Courant, is tackling privacy issues for large files shared in the cloud. Because cryptography works well only for small messages, his research centers on a hybrid that will make file sharing cheaper and easier for programmers to use. His advisors are Nissenbaum, a noted privacy researcher, and Lakshminarayanan Subramanian, assistant professor of computer science at Courant whose research includes networking and computing for societal improvement.

"The primary value (in developing this system) is user empowerment,” Tierney said of his research. “In the cloud, you have to trust too many people you don't know." One of the advantages of the CRISSP program is that it will enable him to study this technology in conjunction with law and public policy, he said.

Tehila Minkus, a first-year doctoral student at NYU-Poly who presented at the workshop, is interested in research centered on Internet search engines and privacy. Her advisors are Nissenbaum and Torsten Suel, NYU-Poly associate professor of computer science and engineering, whose research centers on search engines.

In a perfect world, users would be able to quickly search terms on engines such as Google yet they could choose such a high privacy barrier so that no one would be able to track them or learn what he or she is searching, Minkus explained. Because this isn’t the case, Minkus is looking at different ways users might hide their search terms, such as creating a program that would send out multiple queries at once, while also being respectful of bandwidth. She said some of her concern for privacy on the Internet comes from her Jewish heritage. 

“Older Holocaust survivors are very wary of posting anything on the Internet,” she said. “Synagogues had membership lists, and Nazis would use those to identify people.”