Research aims to fight crime with network processor technology

A five-year research project based in Belfast aims to take on criminals and offload much of the security load from companies and users.

A five-year research project, based at the new Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT), which is part of Queen's University Belfast, plans to create powerful network processor technology and content-filtering software that would handle much of the security load on the Internet, thereby offloading the task from companies and users.

Queens University is receiving £30m in funding to create the centre, which is part of a nationwide plan to build a number of Innovation and Knowledge Centres (IKCs) to help exploit and commercialise research for the benefit of the U.K. economy.

Investors in CSIT include the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board, both government-funded bodies, plus 20 other organisations that have committed to support CSIT's work over the next five years. They include industrial partners, such as BAE Systems Plc and Thales U.K. Ltd., as well as government agencies and international research institutes.

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One of CSIT's main goals is to develop network-based systems that will provide much higher levels of protection to computer users by blocking malicious traffic at the network level. The university says it is already using its strength in content processing to develop powerful processors that would be capable of screening, in real time, the Internet traffic produced by 10,000 households, and spotting malicious content or behaviour.

Research director Dr. Sakir Sezer said CSIT will bring together a wide range of the university's security-related research fields and technologies under one roof.

"By applying hardware acceleration, these systems are able to provide more sophisticated security systems than software can currently provide on PCs," he said. By filtering traffic in the network, he said, it is possible to detect malware or other problems earlier, and prevent them reaching company gateways or users' PCs.

While admitting that still more research needs to be done in order to allow policies to be deployed in such networks, he predicted the research will produce concrete results within two to three years. "Our high-performance content processor technology has created a lot of interest among the equipment vendors," he said.

As well as helping to improve information security, CSIT will also focus on the convergence of network, data and physical security in order to help prevent crime.

One area would be to monitor traffic in Internet chat rooms in order to highlight any grooming of young children by adults. Another would be to analyse CCTV images running on IP networks. By using the content-processing capability of the systems, they could identify unusual or suspicious behaviour, and thereby help to intervene early in dangerous situations.

Professor John McCanny, principal investigator at CSIT, said the university's Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology, which will house CSIT, has a good track record in commercialising its research. "For every pound we have received in funding, we have managed to earn £3," he said.

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