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Air Force Wants Software Spies

by noahmax on August 31, 2006

What if you could send a computer program to do the job of a spy, or a bomber, or drone? It sounds like science fiction — and it’ll probably stay that way, for a long, long time. But Air Force researchers think there’s enough to the idea to start funding a trio of companies for initial work into these attacking, snooping “Cyber Craft.“
cybercraft1.JPG“Using the Cyber Domain to conduct military operations… has significant potential,” an Air Force paper announces. Examples include long-term intelligence activities, like “being to monitor a military barracks, accumulate financial information on a potentially hostile nation, or provide status on the political climate of a South American country.“
Researchers think the programs could answer shorter-term, tactical questions, too. “Like who is in this building across the street, where are the tanks located in a particular town or village that is going to be entered by friendly forces, or whats the latest intelligence regarding adversarial forces in a particular town or village.“
Obviously, it would take more than a bulked-up Web crawler to get the job done. Cyber Craft would have to be able to hop from standard computer networks to electrical grids to wireless nets and back, over and over again.

Cyber agents will need to embody the ability to covertly travel across these mediums, constantly assessing the network layout, morphing itself as networks change, and remaining covert while maintaining the integrity of its mission. Increased use of data hiding techniques and data hiding detection techniques add additional complexity to the Cyber craft weapon arsenal… Cyber weapons will need to perform real-time continuous self-assessment of the adversarys detection capability and be able to make instant decisions to morph or self-destruct. Both these functions will be required in covertness and with the decision information sent back to its Cyber Craft home.

“As an example of a Cyber Craft application, consider a squad of marines entering a residential area,” the Air Force paper offers.

Current intelligence is about 20-mins old and the squad leader requires updated information. The squad leader finds an electrical outlet and plugs in. This outlet allows access to the power grid of the town and subsequently access to the adversarys computer network. The squad leader injects a Cyber Craft into the system, whose mission is to locate a) any insurgents or b) locate any hidden military facilities… The Cyber Craft detect[s] some activity at a military installation within 1000-ft of the Marines location. The Cyber Craft performs a ‘recce mission’ to gather intelligence on the insurgents (exact location, number, arms, etc.) and sends back data/information to the marines. However, in the meantime the marines have moved and have located a different means of connecting to the network. The Cyber Craft has ‘sensed’ this shift so readdresses the feedback information to the marines new location and port. The ‘Cyber Craft’ acquires a positive ID, and sends an alert message back to the marines that the insurgents are about to leave and may be heading their way… The Cyber Craft executes its orders (turns power off, locks the doors), sends back an acknowledgement and self destructs.

There’s not much of this that today’s software can do, the Air Force researchers acknowledge. “Agent development, agent size and complexity, detection technology, realtime agent learning and self morphing technology, RF and network penetration technology are a few of the technological challenges requiring additional investment.“
But the Air Force, earlier this year, did hand out contracts to three firms to start working the problem. Assured Information Security of Rome, NY got a $99,170 grant to “research and develop a CyberCraft software tool that will be able to covertly enter a network and move about the network to detect intrusions or other abnormalities.” Indialantic, FL outfit 3 Sigma Research is looking to build “Cyber Craft organized in to ‘cells’ to enhance survivability and increase resiliency to attack.” And Solidcore Systems, out of Palo Alto, will try to put together a system that include[s] a harbor (a host), and a dock (a control environment for Cyber Craft execution) and cyber craft themselves (ordinary programs that can get launched to hosts and run there).“
Of course, building the Cyber Craft, hard as it is, may wind up being the project’s simplest part. The real questions come if and when fighters start to deploy the things. For instance, “How can we trust the Cyber Craft to ‘do the right thing?’”

The goal is to develop a system that follows the ‘fire-and-forget’ methodology. However, with this philosophy comes the danger of a Cyber Craft morphing into something that performs unintended actions that would be harmful to friendly forces or provide an adversary with information about the senders intentions, position, etc. One way of controlling a Cyber Craft is have it ‘dissolve’ after completing its mission. However, depending on the level of the Cyber Craft (strategic, operational, and tactical) the mission length can go from minutes to years… Thus, the damage that can be inflicted by a rogue Cyber Craft could be significant.

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