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  Protecting our Homeland

Story by Blair Boone

illustration: Jim Frazier

Varied and complex research initiatives at UB help safeguard the nation’s well-being For most Americans, the image of terrorism is the collapsing World Trade Center towers, but a future attack may not use airplanes or bombs. Spreading a highly infectious disease could overwhelm health-care services. A chemical attack could poison water supplies. A cyber attack might paralyze telecommunications networks, disrupting everything from banking to the power grid.

Since September 11, the U.S. government has poured tremendous resources into homeland security. Federal agencies ranging from the Department of Defense to the new Department of Homeland Security are spending billions of dollars on research aimed at preventing future attacks and responding quickly to lessen the impact should another attack occur. illustration by jim frazier As New York State’s flagship comprehensive public research university, UB is pursuing research projects in every area of concern for homeland security. According to UB vice president for research Jaylan Turkkan, the university’s research encompasses biodefense, cybersecurity, risk analysis, engineering solutions, economic impact studies, telecommunications research and public health surveillance.

An advantage UB has in competing for homeland security research funds is the university’s emphasis on multidisciplinary approaches. “UB provides the opportunity for interdisciplinary combinations and collaborations,” says Turkkan. “The rich mix of schools at UB really does provide an unusual opportunity for new and rapid collaborations and teams to form to respond to these challenges.

“That’s the watchword in the federal government right now: interdisciplinary teams,” Turkkan adds. “That’s exactly the kind of new groupings that are happening among faculty, because they’re seeing that’s what the government is funding.”

One example of this cross-disciplinary effort involves UB’s new Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors (CUBS), headed by Venugopal Govindaraju, professor of computer science and engineering. Establishing identities is a key part of homeland security; fake IDs mean terrorists could slip into the country undetected. The center is working on combining a variety of sensing techniques to detect and record everything from fingerprints to facial features, then analyzing the data using advanced computer algorithms to verify a person’s identity.

Innovative sensing techniques being developed include recording fingerprint images using ultrasound. Working with the chemistry, biological sciences and electrical engineering departments, the center is also developing sensors that can detect body odor and other identifying features.

Along with these physical biometrics, the center is exploring behavioral biometrics to verify identity; for example, in signatures. Says Govindaraju, “The signature [to identify] is not necessarily the name you’re signing, but your behavior while you’re signing it. How you hold the pen, what speed you move it, what pressure you apply—those are characteristics we’re looking at.”

Signature verification could even include such things as hand geometry; namely, the shape of the fingers, and how long and wide they are. The more characteristics that can be positively linked to a person, the more positive an identification will be. “A biometric is always with you,” he says. “You can’t lose it.”

Even biometric features can be faked, however. “What if someone steals an image of your fingerprint?” he asks. This problem has led the center to research “liveness” tests, such as sensors that detect moisture, because unlike an image of a fingerprint, the real finger would be moist. “By checking all these different modalities—face, fingerprint, hand geometry—we make someone have to fake so many features that it will be almost impossible to fool the system,” he says.

Preventing people from “fooling the system” is also the goal of Shambhu Upadhyaya, associate professor of computer science and engineering and director of UB’s new Center of Excellence in Information Systems Assurance Research and Education. Established by the National Security Agency (NSA), the multidisciplinary center is one of only 36 nationwide receiving funding to train graduate and undergraduate students for rapidly expanding opportunities in computer security.

Receiving the NSA designation was an outgrowth of Upadhyaya’s work in intrusion detection on computer networks for the Air Force Research Laboratories. The research seeks to prevent computer attacks or unauthorized access to confidential information by recognizing unusual network activity, detecting intrusions as they occur.

“You try to model how people use the systems,” says Upadhyaya, “then you look for deviations from the norm, which is a pretty difficult problem.” He points out that any intrusion detection system must be able to identify attacks from outside the system, and also from inside the system by insiders, authorized users with malicious intent. Currently, the researchers are creating a working prototype to demonstrate their system’s feasibility.

The center’s research has ramifications for commercial organizations, such as banks, and military organizations, including intelligence agencies. Closely related to intrusion detection is document control, which studies procedures to safeguard information from internal users. Upadhyaya cites the example of Robert Hanssen, the much-publicized FBI agent who sold classified information to the former Soviet Union and, later, to Russia. “He was authorized to access everything, but he started looking at documents for which he had no need,” notes Upadhyaya. “If document access privileges are properly enforced and the accesses monitored, that sort of activity can’t occur.”

Key to solving both problems is real-time detection by monitoring information systems and alerting authorities immediately when unusual activity occurs so that illegitimate activities can be prevented.

Detecting unusual patterns in real time is also the goal of the Western New York Population Health Observatory, a component of UB’s new School of Public Health and Health Professions. Originally a cooperative effort with the Erie County Health Department, the project now covers the eight counties of Western New York.

A health survey, another UB multidisciplinary effort, combines health science, geographic information system (GIS) technology developed in the geography department, and even handwriting recognition technology, also developed at UB, to analyze health data as it is collected. Automating the collection and analysis of medical data could help public health authorities immediately recognize signs of a biological attack using infectious diseases, as well as normal outbreaks of epidemic diseases, such as influenza. Pinpointing the location of outbreaks would allow health departments, health-care providers and emergency responders to more effectively manage and contain infections.

Common to all these programs and many more is the use of “information fusion” techniques developed at UB’s Center for Multisource Information Fusion (CMIF) under the center’s director, James Llinas, adjunct research professor in the department of industrial engineering. Originally developed as a data-compression technology for the U.S. military, information fusion has evolved into a decision-aiding mechanism useful wherever very large amounts of data must be rapidly gathered and analyzed.

UB has also been named a partner with Columbia University and the New York State Department of Health in the Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research. As part of the Northeast Biodefense Center, one of eight centers throughout the United States, UB will focus primarily on the development of vaccines to combat biological agents and infectious diseases, along with therapies, diagnostic criteria and training for first responders, such as emergency medical personnel and police, to handle suspected bioagents.

The university has also been successful in applying existing research efforts to new problems. For example, the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering is exploring ways to use developed technologies that make buildings resistant to damage from earthquakes, so buildings are more “blast tolerant” in the event of a terror bombing, according to Andrew Whittaker, associate professor of civil engineering.

Another recent interdisciplinary success is the BioBlower, a mechanical air pump based on the Roots blower, a technology in existence for more than 100 years. According to the team of UB chemists and engineers who developed the device, the BioBlower can safely and inexpensively destroy airborne biological agents in large buildings in only minutes. When it comes to decontaminating and purifying water and other liquids, a team of UB engineers and scientists has developed a screw pump to be used in a device that may help revolutionize that field in eliminating bacteria, viruses and other contaminants.

A potential problem with homeland security research is that the projects and results may be classified or top secret. And, according to Turkkan, the government has begun to insert “troublesome clauses” in unclassified government-sponsored research that might preclude publication of findings. The problem is not unique to UB; all research universities rely on sharing research discoveries to advance both knowledge of particular subjects and the careers of their researchers and students. In addition, “we’re not eligible to apply for some grants because we don’t have top secret security clearance,” says Turkkan.

However, UB is able to leverage its research expertise through the Calspan–University at Buffalo Research Center (CUBRC). According to CUBRC’s Tom McMahon, the center gives UB access to facilities and researchers with top secret security clearance and established relationships with U.S. defense and intelligence agencies and contractors. In turn, CUBRC benefits from the wealth of expertise found with what McMahon calls UB’s “superstar” researchers in many disciplines.

Indeed, CUBRC is involved in several of the projects mentioned in this article. Another joint project relevant to homeland security includes the development of Handheld Biological Agent Detectors, or HBADs, used to detect bioagents in the environment. These devices can potentially replace far more expensive suitcase-sized detectors currently in use.

In addition, UB provides CUBRC with a talent pool for future hires. “Some of our best people were students five years ago,” says McMahon. The center often funds postdoctoral research, which can lead to those researchers being hired by CUBRC. That’s good for UB and the local economy. “It’s about jobs,” says McMahon, adding that the positions created are high-value, highly compensated jobs.

And, while the social benefits of homeland security research are invaluable, it also retains the traditional university research mission of advancing knowledge ... not to mention the “Wow!” factor.

Or, as Turkkan, who confesses to being perennially excited about the university’s research, says: “Look at all this cool stuff!”

Blair Boone, Ph.D. ’84, is a Buffalo-based freelance writer.

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