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CybersecurityBiology can show us how to stop hackers

Published 10 November 2017

“Biology is the true science of security. And by that I mean that organisms have had to contend with adversaries and competitors from the very beginning of their evolutionary history. As a result, they’ve evolved an incredible repertoire of defense systems to protect themselves,” says an expert on biology and computation. “Looking at how biological systems have learned to protect themselves can suggest novel approaches to security problems,” ASU’s Professor Stephanie Forrest says. “What I try to do is look at biological mechanisms and principles and translate those mechanisms and architectures into computational algorithms that protect computers.”

Stephanie Forrest is the director of the ASU Biodesign Institute Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society, and she is a professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering. She has more than twenty years of experience leading interdisciplinary research and education programs, particularly at the intersection of biology and computation, including work on computer security, software engineering and biological modeling. 

ASU Now spoke with Forrest about her take on the computer security landscape and what computer scientists can learn from human immune systems and biological evolution.

ASU Now: You research the intersection of biology and computation. What can biology teach us about computer security?
Stephanie Forrest:
Biology is the true science of security. And by that I mean that organisms have had to contend with adversaries and competitors from the very beginning of their evolutionary history. As a result, they’ve evolved an incredible repertoire of defense systems to protect themselves. Every cell has a defense system, and every kind of animal has a defense system, and even ecological systems have defenses built-in.

Looking at how biological systems have learned to protect themselves can suggest novel approaches to security problems. One of the easiest places to see this is in the immune system, which plays a major role in protecting individual organisms from foreign viruses and bacteria. What I try to do is look at biological mechanisms and principles and translate those mechanisms and architectures into computational algorithms that protect computers. 

AN: What is your take on the scope of data breaches over the past decade?
Forrest:
We consumers don’t have as deep an understanding of the scope of these breaches as we should. Today, we’re essentially forced, either through our jobs or just to conduct our lives, to give up huge amounts of personal information to third parties, who have demonstrated time and again that they cannot protect it. As a result, our data are everywhere — in the hands of foreign governments, in the hands of cybercriminals, in the hands of the media, and in the hands of corporations we may never have heard of.