Dr. Wenke Lee

A $4.2 million grant has been awarded to researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing in an effort to develop programs that will improve cybersecurity, especially for online banking, shopping and trading transactions.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Authority (DARPA), and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), granted the funds as part of a four year project titled “THEIA.”

DARPA is the government agency that invests in breakthrough technologies for national security and AFRL is the Air Force organization dedicated to the discovery, development and integration of war fighting technology for the U.S.’s air, space and cyberspace forces.

Dr. Wenke Lee, a professor at the College of Computing and its primary investigator, told Global Atlanta that hackers today “are more purpose driven.”

“I think it’s very obvious that the hackers now have the upper hand and more so now than ever,” he added. “They also are more purpose driven and their activities are affecting our lives more so.”

In the mid-1990s for instance, he recalled that if a Web site was hacked “it was more for fun. People would react and say ‘My computer was attacked, but so what.’”

Now, however, in view of cases such as the hacking of the government’s Office of Personnel Management files affecting as many as 22 million people, he said that “They are hacking for a purpose. People are personally affected and when the hackers get ahold of Target accounts and acquire personal financial data, they now can commit fraud and go on to commit blackmail and get ransom.”

He said that the THEIA project has implications for many industries and anyone who needs to send secure information that is not manipulated during transfer and arrives securely.

The title THEIA was chosen after the Greek goddess of shining light because the college’s research will be focused on where data moves as it is routed from one Internet host to another and whether any malicious code is attached to data during its transfer.

At the moment, it is not possible to determine whether data sent from an end-host has been modified by a “malicious browser extension” after a user has completed a Web form.

Dr. Lee traced Georgia Tech’s involvement in promoting cybersecurity to the efforts of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia forecasting threats to cybersystems, and Christopher Klaus, who launched one of the more successful security firms while still an undergraduate.

The College of Computing earlier this year received a $1.94 million grant to improve research for the cybersecurity of the Navy and the university has been hosting security summits annually for many years.

Atlanta also has a good ecosystem supporting cybersecurity research, Dr. Lee added, saying that he feels as long as the university and local industry remain mutually supportive the city will continue to enjoy its place as a top market nationally for information security talent.

“Georgia Tech has played an important role and holds an annual summit which draws about 400 attendees mostly from Atlanta,” he said. “There is a healthy exchange of ideas, and we publish reports on emerging threats.”

Earlier in July, Georgia Tech participated in a cybersecurity conference organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that aimed at helping small and mid-size business owners develop, evaluate and strengthen cyberseucrity programs.

Also involved in executing the DARPA-AFRL grant over the next 48 months will be: Dr. Taesoo Kim, assistant professor; Dr. Alessandro Orso, associate chair; Dr. Simon Chung, research scientist, all with the College of Computing and Dr. Albert Brzeczko, research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.