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The San Diego Union-Tribune

People to watch: Stefan Savage

April 15, 2005

Position: Director, Collaborative Center for Internet Epidemiology and Defenses, or CCIED (pronounced "seaside") and assistant professor of computer science and engineering, University of California San Diego.

Age: 35

Funded by a $6.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Collaborative Center for Internet Epidemiology and Defenses was founded in October to develop new ways to detect, analyze and defend computer networks against large-scale Internet attacks. With their focus on viruses, worms and other fast-moving computer-borne plagues, researchers intend to develop methods of network security based on a new approach derived from new thinking about Internet immunology.

Savage founded the center with colleagues from UCSD and the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley. About 20 staff members, including students, are participating in the five-year program.

Their effort is part of a broader "cyber trust" initiative undertaken by the National Science Foundation to prevent what some experts describe as "an electronic Pearl Harbor."

As I understand it, Stephanie Forrest of the University of New Mexico published the seminal paper on computer immunology. Why did this concept take root and how has the field changed?

Stephanie pointed out that the homogeneity of our software base is a key vulnerability – that a single bug in a popular application can allow an attacker to compromise millions of computers. She proposed the idea of creating a kind of Internet immunity via "artificial heterogeneity" with each piece of software being subtly changed from the others so an attacker could find no common point of entry. Ten years ago people thought she was crazy, but the threat has become real and her proposed solution is now considered a very sexy research area.

Why does the center exist?

The center is focused on large-scale Internet outbreaks, such as worms, viruses, and botnets. We are producing technologies for early warning, threat analysis, forensics and fully automated defenses. Much of our work has direct commercial relevance. In fact, a precursor effort to automatically defend against new worms and viruses has already led to the creation of a San Diego-based startup company – Netsift.

How did you get your funding?

Our project was originally pitched to DARPA, a Pentagon agency officially known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. When their program was classified we submitted our proposal to the National Science Foundation's CyberTrust initiative.

Describe your job.

The job of a professor is a combination of storytelling, cat herding and panhandling. I need to raise money, make sure that everyone is making progress and ultimately convince people to see the world a particular way. It's this last element – which is at the core of teaching and research – that is both the hardest and the most rewarding.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced?

Time management.

What are your major accomplishments?

I'm currently most proud of our automated worm fingerprinting technology, which was the basis for Netsift. I've also done work on network measurement technology, denial-of-service attacks and detecting concurrency errors – all now in use by industry. I've had great students and they deserve most of the credit.

Describe your previous experience:

UCSD is my first academic job after I got my Ph.D. from the University of Washington. I was a founder and chief scientist of Asta Networks, a defunct startup that built security products to help with denial-of-service attacks. I also served on the technical advisory board of Rendition Networks, which was acquired by Opsware Inc. I'm currently on the technical advisory board of Narus, I consult for Netsift, and I do a variety of legal work as well.

Tell us something interesting about yourself:

I was born in Paris, France, but I grew up in Manhattan. I was rejected by UCSD as a graduate student. I can pick locks. My undergraduate degree is in history. I used to play bass guitar and run, but with two small kids most of my spare time these days seems to revolve around toy trains and Winnie-the-Pooh.


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