ADELPHI, Md. -- In the landscape of modern warfare, cyberattacks pose an enormous threat to mission success and the safety of Soldiers worldwide. Adversaries can employ malicious software to steal classified information on military operations or impair Army computers, networks and other technologies.
While cybersecurity measures serve to thwart future attacks on military systems, Army research in cyber resilience seeks to minimize the potential damages in case an adversary somehow penetrates the network’s defenses.
Dr. Alexander Kott, chief scientist of U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory and the Army’s senior research scientist for Cyber Resilience, advocates Army initiatives in the development of techniques that enable computer systems to withstand and survive outside interference.
“I think resilience is even more important than security,” Kott said. “In the future battlefield, we will continue to deal with very sophisticated adversaries, which will be able to get into our systems often. Therefore, we need to know how to deal with that. We need to know how to be resilient, how to bounce back, how to survive and keep going, in spite of the fact that we have malware on our systems.”
Kott illustrated his point with a metaphor that compared cyberattacks to pathogens that target the human body.
“The reality is that it’s very difficult to prevent a virus [from getting] into our system,” Kott said. “For an overwhelming majority of viruses and germs, we accept the fact that they will get into our system somehow. And now the question is, can our immune system fight it so that we can recover and continue our normal life? That’s resilience.”
For Kott, his interest in network systems and computers link back to his childhood fascination with the boundless possibilities of human ingenuity. Born and raised abroad, he fervently pursued the latest news on the space race and the science of space exploration since the age of five.
Later on, Kott found inspiration in the connective nature of human scientific knowledge and the potential power of artificial intelligence.
“I remember in college, as I was studying engineering, I was struck by the idea that all knowledge in the world is actually a complex network, and you can link it all together,” Kott said. “You can capture the intelligence of [humankind] in a systematic form and maybe even in a computer. That was probably the beginnings of my interest in things like artificial intelligence and network science.”
After Kott immigrated to the United States, he worked at an AI technology company and as a program manager for DARPA before he found himself at the Army Research Laboratory.
As the chief of the lab’s network science division at the time, Kott was among the first to advocate the importance of cyber resilience in the Army. He also became a key figure in starting the Cyber Security Collaborative Research Alliance, an influential foundational research program in the science of cybersecurity.
Started in 2013 and expected to be completed by September 2022, the CSCRA first investigated novel methods for detecting cyber intrusions before the program transitioned its focus to less-developed areas such as deception technology and adversarial learning over the years.
“It’s interesting how the Cyber Security Collaborative Research Alliance has been progressing,” Kott said. “It was a truly unique effort that, I would say, changed the landscape of research in cybersecurity.”
In addition to the CSCRA, Kott played a key role in formulating a different Collaborative Research Alliance on the study of the Internet of Battlefield Things as well as a NATO-based research program on Autonomous Intelligent Cyber-Defense Agents. Both programs examine different aspects of cyber resilience and serve to improve how the Army neutralizes cyber threats.
According to Kott, the position of senior research scientist requires that he not only provide advice on what new research initiatives to pursue, but he must also link Army research efforts with those in industry and academia through means such as CRADAs and SBIRs.
“In many ways, a person like myself should go out and talk to industry and academia and build bridges,” Kott said. “This is extremely important. If we don’t partner with them, we’re much weaker than we can possibly be.”
Fortunately, Kott believes that CCDC ARL has successfully established itself as a world leader in scientific and technological research that directly benefits the Soldier. The proof, he claims, can be found on the lab’s website.
“Go to your favorite search engine… and type in ‘Army Research Laboratory’ and click on the icon that says ‘News,’” Kott said. “This is a good way to look into what the Army Research Laboratory is doing for the Army and for the future defense of our nation.”
Dr. Alexander Kott emphasizes the importance of cyber resilience research in the What We Learned Today podcast for Aug. 20, 2020.