Two cybersecurity programs aiming to innovate and educate receive NSF Frontier awards

Cyber Image: iStockphoto

The National Science Foundation announced two awards July 31 for programs aimed at improving and educating people about cutting-edge cybersecurity.

The two programs, which were Frontier award winners in the NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC) program, are aimed at creating new encryption methods for computer programs and adding new security layers to cloud computing.


One award helps establish the the Center for Encrypted Functionalities (CEF), a collaboration between five universities that aims to encrypt whole computer programs — as opposed to their output — through a process called “program obfuscation.” The project has already discovered the first mathematically sound way to encrypt program functionalities.

“Humanity has been encrypting messages using mathematics for hundreds of years. But the question of encrypting a functionality seemed out of reach,” said Amit Sahai, a computer science professor at UCLA and the lead principal investigator of the project. “In human terms, this question is like asking whether it is possible for someone to keep a secret, if an adversary can see how every neuron in her brain behaves.”

Another award was given to the Modular Approach to Cloud Security (MACS) project, which wants to bring multi-layer security to cloud computing components, strengthening security controls beyond those that fully encompass cloud services as a whole.

The program will use Massachusetts Open Cloud — a public cloud marketplace run by Boston University — to test, deploy and scale their findings. Researchers hope to eventually allow users to safely systems data — a first, according to the NSF release — that will lead to building cloud systems cheaper than ever before.

“Our goal is to build a cloud with clear and transparent security properties,” said Ran Canetti, a professor of computer science at Boston University and lead researcher on the project. “Furthermore, we intend to make it modular, thus enabling the construction of cloud services from basic components in a security-preserving way. If successful, this project will transform the way we currently build and argue about secure systems.”


Both programs will also try to leverage their programs into educational opportunities. The Center for Encrypted Functionalities is honing a massive open online course (MOOC) dedicated to teaching people the fundamental principles of encryption.

Victor Piotrowski, the program director for the SaTC, says he hopes the MOOC will have “a really wide-ranging impact.”

“Cybersecurity professionals need to be critical-thinkers with strong STEM foundations to respond to tomorrow’s challenges,” said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director for NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources, in a release. “These Frontier awards…emphasize connections between cybersecurity, STEM education and the important role of mathematics and computational thinking.”

The cryptography course looks to expand on programs already being run on Coursera by Stanford University professors, with an extra emphasis placed on recruiting women to the field. The CEF is pairing with ShePlusPlus, a Stanford University group that empowers women to get involved in computer science.

Even with what Piotrowski described as an “enormous” recruiting effort, he noted that 12.5 percent of the population employed in cybersecurity is female.


“We have a terrible shortage of females in computing in general,” he said.

The MACS project’s education goals include integrating its findings into curricula as soon as possible.

Some of the project’s results will be immediately used in a “cutting-edge” graduate program at Boston University, with other elements incorporated into the graduate curriculum at the University of Connecticut.

In addition, the findings will also be used in a Cloud Computing Security MOOC hosted on edX, the MOOC platform developed at MIT.

Piotrowski hopes that both programs can attract high school students to the field.


“New emerging topics in research…usually takes a long time before they appear in curriculum,” he said. “[The researchers] believe the kind of topics they cover are really attractive to high school students.”

The NSF has given $74.5 million in Frontier awards to 225 projects in 39 states.

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