There's a lot that nature can teach us, and its seems that digital security experts are learning the lesson. Taking a cue from nature to protect computer networks from intruders, they have created a new defence mechanism that mimics one of the hardiest creatures in the world - the ant.
Unlike traditional security devices, which are static, these "digital ants" wander through computer networks looking for threats, such as "computer worms" - self-replicating programs designed to steal information or facilitate unauthorized use of machines.
On detecting a threat, the digital ant quickly signals an army of ants to converge at that location, drawing the attention of human operators who step in to investigate.
The concept, called "swarm intelligence," promises to transform cyber security because it adapts readily to changing threats.
"In nature, we know that ants defend against threats very successfully. They can ramp up their defense rapidly, and then resume routine behavior quickly after an intruder has been stopped. We were trying to achieve that same framework in a computer system," explained Professor of Computer Science Errin Fulp, an expert in security and computer networks.
With new new variations and updates of worms and malware, security programs gobble more resources, antivirus scans take longer and machines run slower - a familiar problem for most computer users.
Glenn Fink, a research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Wash., came up with the idea of copying ant behaviour.
Fink invited Fulp to join a project that tested digital ants on a network of 64 computers.
Swarm intelligence, the approach developed by PNNL and Wake Forest, divides up the process of searching for specific threats.
"Our idea is to deploy 3,000 different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat. As they move about the network, they leave digital trails modeled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants. Each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. Stronger scent trails attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection," said Fulp.
In the study, Fulp introduced a worm into the network, and the digital ants successfully found it.
Fulp said that the new security approach is best suited for large networks that share many identical machines, such as those found in governments, large corporations and universities.