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  • Writer's pictureMinnie Faith

The Nature Lover’s Guide to Cyber Security

Biomimicry is catching on in the cyber security field as engineers take inspiration from nature to develop improved technologies for protecting data and thwarting cyber crime.

Imitation is readily acknowledged as the sincerest form of flattery—except among innovation purists. No one wants to be accused of copying others’ ideas, right? Today, though, being a “copycat” is de rigueur if the source material comes from nature.

Biomimetics, or, as it’s popularly known, “biomimicry,” is a fast-growing field in which researchers explore how animals, plants, humans, and even micro-organisms perform certain tasks, and then appropriate those biological designs to endow technologies with the same capabilities. Rather than re-invent the wheel, developers of medical treatments, agricultural products, military equipment, apparel, computers, and more are making improvements based on what already exists in the natural world.

For example, the soles of geckos’ feet recently helped a Stanford University researcher develop an adhesive that allows robots to climb buildings and other smooth surfaces. Elephants’ trunks led to the development of a new type of robotic arm that is said to be powerfully strong and flexible—able to expand and contract by deflating sacs between the “vertebrae.” The fins of humpback whales inspired improvements to fan and turbine blades that reduce drag, increase speed, and improve energy efficiency. (For more examples, read “14 Smart Inventions Inspired by Nature: Biomimicry.”)

Now biomimicry is catching on in the cyber security field, as engineers seek to protect data and thwart cyber crime using defense mechanisms found in nature.

Bornean moths, for instance, protect themselves from birds by creating leaf tents. Using a similar principle, “data masking” shields sensitive personal information from unauthorized viewers by replacing it with phony data.

The chameleon protects itself from predators by changing colors to blend in with its surroundings, rendering itself nearly invisible. In cyber security, steganography disguises sensitive data to make it look like something else: a picture of a flower, perhaps, or a music file.

Ants and bees work collaboratively to accomplish such tasks as building, defending, and repairing their nests and hives. Similarly, cyber security researchers are applying “swarm intelligence.” In one project, “digital ants” continually monitor systems for anomalies such as malware, and drop “markers” where unusual activity occurs, similar to the pheromonal markers ants place along paths to food. When the markers at a given location exceed a certain threshold, an alarm is triggered.

The body’s immune system is another popular source of inspiration for cyber security design. Immunity-based systems are always on, alert to anything out of the ordinary, and able to promptly kick into attack and repair mode. And they’re adaptive, “remembering” the intruder for increasingly efficient and effective defenses. Some data security systems operate similarly, knowing the “baseline” for normal behaviors, such as the keystroke speeds and patterns of specific users in order to detect potentially unauthorized users.

What other functions might cyber security designers borrow from nature?

  • Capsids—the strong, stable containers housing viral DNA—assemble themselves automatically. Could we design digital security that does the same, with multiple organizations on a network responding automatically and in sync to defend against an attack?

  • After leaving their chicks to find food, returning penguins can identify their offspring even in a crowd. How might we program our security systems to identify users who don’t belong, such as data thieves or “advanced persistent threats” that lurk on our networks long before we discover them?

  • Salmon hurl themselves upstream to spawn in the place where they were hatched. They then die, their life’s work completed. What if data, after serving its purpose, “expired” and disappeared, no longer vulnerable to theft?

It seems paradoxical, this borrowing from the natural world to safeguard a virtual one. But humans have engaged in biomimicry for eons, starting, perhaps, with wearing animal hides for warmth. Now, as then, we may find some of the best solutions to our problems on nature’s path.

—by JR Reagan, global chief information security officer, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited (DTTL)

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