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July 2004


Security Commentary, Analysis & News

BIOLOGY: Back to Nature?

Since the 1940s, when scientists like John von Neumann looked to mimic cellular replication in computing, biology has served as a source of inspiration for security researchers seeking alternative approaches to protecting systems.

But, David Evans warns, some of that optimism may be misplaced. "The security problems we have to solve are very different from the ones biology has solved," says the University of Virginia computer science professor. Because biological attacks evolve differently than computer-generated attacks, he says, it's unclear if biologically inspired defenses will stop malware.

The fact that viruses and worms, tweaked by script-kiddies, are still capable of inflicting damage "is a sign that most computing systems are not learning lessons from the past," he says.

One lesson to learn from nature is diversity.

"Diversity is a successful strategy that has kept humans alive. For instance, every human has a different immune system, so some will resist viruses that others won't," says Evans. "It's easier to run a network where all the systems are the same, but if you have a network with a lot of different operating systems, platforms and application software, only part of it will be vulnerable to specific attacks."

Another lesson is redundancy. "Any critical service should be implemented in more than one way and applied to more than one machine.


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