ITI Director researches establishing trust within very large computer networks


Lizzie Roehrs

Testing new network protocols is currently somewhat of a game of chance. This means that means that activities like internet banking and e-commerce could carry unforeseen vulnerabilities for users. photo of David Nicol

Information Trust Institute Director and principal investigator David Nicol is working with other researchers to develop simulations of the Internet which will represent over one billion devices, to study various novel approaches of ensuring trust and robustness between devices in the event of network failures and outages.

“There are two areas where our research improves on the state of the practice,” says Nicol, also the Herman M. Dieckamp Endowed Chair in Engineering. “The normal PKI (public-key-infrastructure) techniques rely on correct and consistent operation of the network. The motivating study makes establishing trust resilient to failures. The second area is driven by the requirements to study these techniques on very large networks, ones with over one billion devices.”

PKI encompasses a set of procedures, policies, software, and hardware used to house and expropriate digital certificates and oversee public-key encryption. The purpose is to ensure the secure electronic transfer of information for a wide variety of internet-based, potentially exploitable activities such as internet banking, e-commerce, email, and healthcare portals. 

Nicol and his team are exploring novel techniques for using the observed behavior of working software on relatively small networks as the basis for a stack of models at increasing levels of abstraction, with each level focusing on behavior at the modeled scale.

“The trust establishment work will make both non-critical and critical operations of devices on the Internet better able to withstand failures, outages, or cyber-attacks,” says Nicol. “The simulation research will open avenues to studying other kinds of network operations, beyond just the establishment of trust. All of this contributes to our goal of making large scale computer networks more trustworthy.”