Skip to Navigation Skip to Page Content

Validation: An NSF CAREER award

On the day last December when Bill Harrison learned his CAREER grant proposal had been funded, he was at home recovering from a cold and had laryngitis. When he got up to check his e-mail at around 5 p.m., he saw a message from Karl Levitt, the program director of the National Science Foundation’s CyberTrust program, and steeled himself for a kindly thanks-but-no-thanks message.

“When I saw that my proposal was being funded I tried to scream, but because of my laryngitis I had no voice. I had to drag my wife to my office computer to show her what I was so excited about,” said Harrison, an assistant professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Missouri.

Harrison’s five-year funded project, “Automatic Synthesis of High Assurance Security Kernels,” is based on a recent trend in computer security research called language-based security (LBS).

LBS applies concepts from programming languages research to produce formal models of secure systems. Harrison’s CAREER proposal confronts what he calls the next logical step in LBS: compiling these formal models of secure systems into implementations in a sound and verifiable manner. The research applies tried-and-true ideas from across a wide spectrum of programming language research in unexpected ways within the context of security.

“There has been increased interest within defense and avionics circles in separation kernels, which are secure embedded operating systems designed to cope with the challenges that can arise with shared hardware,” said Harrison. “For example, ships and jets simply don’t have the space to support separate hardware for each subsystem and so they must share hardware,” he explained. “Sharing resources raises serious concerns for system security, safety and integrity. You wouldn’t want your missile guidance system to crash because it’s sharing hardware with malicious or buggy applications.”

“I’ve been submitting this proposal in one form or another for years,” Harrison laughed and noted that his successful CAREER proposal was his second attempt for the prestigious award. He credits Bob Tzou, the James C. Dowell professor and chairman in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, and Dick Kieburtz, professor emeritus at the Oregon Graduate Institute in Portland, Ore., where Harrison previously worked as a senior researcher, for the success of his proposal this time around. “Bob and Dick repeatedly told me that a good proposal is more like a sales pitch than a technical document and it finally sunk in,” Harrison said with a smile.

“This is huge,” said Harrison. “It’s the best thing that has ever happened in my career.”