Scientists seek to plug gaps in computer security

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Researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have declared war on computer viruses and their consorts.

This content was published on November 9, 2003 - 12:05

The new Zurich Information Security Centre (ZISC) aims to be a world leader in creating hacker-proof security systems.

Virus attacks have paralysed personal computers as well as major mainframe systems in recent years, at the cost to the business world of millions of francs in lost revenue and repairs.

Last month a computer worm broke through the security system of Swiss Post, freezing cashpoints across the country and severing online services.

The Swiss Federal Railways also bore the brunt of a computer worm in September, which affected its website and some ticket machines.

These are the kinds of attacks ZISC - backed by Credit Suisse, IBM and Sun Microsystems - hopes to help prevent in the future.

Damage

Paul Sevinc, a scientist at the centre, told swissinfo that researchers have to go back and study the basic components of computer systems.

“We don’t really understand everything about security systems,” he said. “So we have to go back to the basics to make sure we can design reliable security software.”

Students at the centre have their work cut out. The hardest part of their job is to stay one step ahead of the hackers who try to break through security systems.

Some hackers have no other aim than to crack protection software. But there are others who also want to inflict damage and create highly destructive viruses.

It is also feared that computer hacking could be used by terrorists and organised crime, albeit for different purposes.

Intruders

To counter these hackers, the centre is pursuing a variety of approaches to the problem, such as developing software to detect intruders.

Another involves improved cryptography, or the special coding of information.

“It’s an important building block for security systems,” Sevinc explains. “The code should be practically unbreakable, but of course you never know.”

The only way to find if a new protection system is secure is test it out in the public domain.

“If someone manages to get through, we look at how they did it and we try to improve on our original idea,” said Sevinc.

The research at the Zurich centre is backed by the Swiss bank, Credit Suisse, and by computer giants IBM and Sun Microsystems. But the results won’t just benefit corporate customers.

“[Private users] will have better operating systems and security systems such as firewalls and virus scanners,” Sevinc told swissinfo.

swissinfo, Scott Capper and Samantha Tonkin

In brief

The Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has opened a new centre dedicated to computer security and preventing attacks from hackers and computer viruses.

Researchers there will attempt to develop new systems for secure document sharing, data encryption and intrusion detection.

The centre is backed by Credit Suisse, IBM and Sun Microsystems.

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