Looking for the Proverbial Needle in a Haystack
You might think that the electronic communications you send and receive are pristine – not tampered with. But with hackers and others who might access your computer or send you messages, that may not be the case. Scott Craver and his colleagues work in security technology, living in a world where detecting such invaders -- and evading detection -- is just the tip of the iceberg.
Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Scott Craver says that already having a hacker attack named after him made his life a bit easier while pursuing a PhD at Princeton. "I was able to point to it and say, 'See, my work is already in textbooks,'" Craver said. "'You might as well let me out.'" And Princeton did. "That was nice."
In 1997, Craver was still a graduate student at Northern Illinois University — where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees — when a professor described to him a new copy-protection system that used a digital watermark so small that it was invisible. Craver was skeptical so the professor shared the published research with him. The article impressed Craver, and even though he didn’t quite understand all of the underlying math, he fibbed to the professor and said he did. “Great,” said the professor. “Because none of us here do. You can give us a presentation on it tomorrow.”
Following the all-night cram session that ensued, Craver had an epiphany: the system had a fatal flaw. And the “Craver Attack” was born.
Over the next decade, Craver became a specialist in evading, breaking and reverse-engineering digital watermark security and in 2006 earned a $300,000, three-year grant through the Air Force’s Young Investigator Research Program. And though this work continues, Craver is now becoming interested in security technology that goes beyond the usual cat-and-mouse game of detecting invaders and evading detection.
He and his students are researching methods of covert communication that are undetectable -- a mathematical challenge since the tiniest tinkering leaves traces. But they’ve found a way. By manipulating the pseudo-random imaging of a simple screen saver, they found they can communicate a hidden message while at the same time evading any algorithm looking for patterns. Their work can be seen at http://blog.xcott.com/.
Craver says it was the opportunity to do this kind of work that brought him to Binghamton University in 2004. He saw several professors, like Jessica Fridrich, who had already distinguished themselves as experts in security research. “Everyone in information hiding knows Professor Fridrich,” he said. The department’s commitment to this field impressed him because he says most universities have one professor who serves as a security specialist or only a few professors who want to move into security research.
“It’s different here,” he said. “Here we have people in Electrical Engineering who have already distinguished themselves as experts in the field. This is a good place to come to if you want to do security research.”