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Even the name of the threat, “zero-day malware,” is eerily ominous, hinting at the cyber equivalent of a disease without a cure.
That is just one example of the Internet perils that researchers from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are jointly confronting as they imagine global ground rules for the fast-evolving cyberworld.
For the past four years, faculty and fellows from the neighboring institutions have partnered in a project called “Explorations in Cyber International Relations.” The ECIR project’s brief is “to explore alternative cyber developments, assess challenges and threats, and identify possibilities and opportunities in cyberspace for security and well-being.”
The co-principal investigators are Harvard Professor Venkatesh (Venky) Narayanamurti, director of the Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, and MIT Political Science Professor Nazli Choucri, associate director of MIT’s Technology and Development Program.
Perhaps it’s a measure of the cross-cutting nature of the project that MIT, the nation’s leading technical institute, deployed a political scientist to coordinate the effort, while Harvard brought a physicist who founded the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
MIT is the lead partner in the cyber project, which is funded by the Pentagon’s “Project Minerva,” a brainchild of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who sought to put the nation’s top academics to work thinking about the toughest strategic challenges of the 21st century.
The $10 million, five-year grant runs through early 2014, and Choucri and Narayanamurti are both determined to generate additional funding to extend the project’s reach well beyond then. There’s no shortage of cyber policy puzzles to solve.
Narayanamurti said the ECIR project is working to understand the crossroads of cyber issues in international relations, from governance to legal questions to privacy matters and security threats. The threats can range from cyberespionage of corporate as well as government secrets to cyber attacks aimed at damaging property—or worse.
The Belfer Center’s decades-old International Security Program has long focused on physical threats, Narayanamurti noted, “but code can be equally damaging—code can be a weapon just like a bomb.”
One of those threats being studied by fellows in the project is zero-day malware, so named because the computer code being used in a bug to attack or infiltrate a system has never been seen before—and therefore has no signature to make it recognizable by anti-virus programs.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy Eric Rosenbach (center), former executive director of the Belfer Center, discusses cyber challenges at a joint Harvard-MIT cyber security conference.
The ECIR project’s brief is “to explore alternative cyber developments, assess challenges and threats, and identify possibilities and opportunities in cyberspace for security and well-being.”