USC Price School of Public Policy

Top Security Minds Tackle Cyber Threat

Knowledge in Action:

Top Security Minds Tackle Cyber Threat

By Merrill Balassone

Erroll Southers Erroll Southers, associate director of USC CREATE.
Photo by Amber Medley

Cyber crime drains about $1 trillion a year from the global economy — more than what’s spent fighting drug trafficking around the world. But while there’s plenty of debate over how to fight the war on drugs, the issue of our nation’s vulnerability on the Web gets far less attention.

That’s why USC brought together its top counterterrorism and computer security researchers with officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, local law enforcement, and defense and aerospace corporations on Jan. 24 to assess the threat of cyber crime.

The event, planned to be one in a series of cyber seminars, is a partnership between USC’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI). CREATE is based at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and USC Viterbi.

“Cyberspace sounds like another dimension,” said Erroll Southers, associate director of CREATE and adjunct professor at USC Price. “But cyberspace is your desktop, your kid’s laptop or even the conduit running under the street. It is everywhere.”

Computer scientist Michael Orosz, a project leader with the ISI, gave examples that showed the U.S. economy’s dependence on computer software and other information technologies with the potential to be hacked.

Relying on ATMs and online banking, the financial sector is “totally dependent” on such systems, Orosz said. And the military has floated the idea of equipping soldiers with smart devices. Couple that connectivity with statistics that put the median cost of a single cyber crime at $5.8 million and there’s potential for even larger hits to the U.S. economy.

“It’s a very connected, linked world,” Orosz said. “But many organizations are not aware of how vulnerable their systems are. They have all kinds of excuses … But they are part of the big picture.”

CREATE and the ISI are studying how cyber crime could impact the economy close to home — at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. An attack large enough to shutter the ports even for a day would cost an estimated $1 billion, Orosz said.

USC’s work with the ports, called PortSec, allows researchers to simulate a cyber attack against the ports’ technology infrastructure, help officials plug gaps and learn how to recover quickly after such an event.

Other presenters at the USC cyber seminar included Navy Cmdr. Chris Agar and Roger Schell, who is internationally renowned for his contributions to the “Orange Book,” now the most widely used international security standard for computers and networks.

“From the conference presentations and discussions, we’ve had it reinforced that the ‘cyber threat’ is not a threat. Rather, we are staring directly at a potential catastrophe,” said Winnie Callahan, director of innovation for the ISI. “It is incumbent upon business, law enforcement and academia to take up the mantle and provide the disruptive reference implementations that can start to truly mitigate this ‘so-called threat.’ Bold collaborative action on our part can make a difference.”