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Computer security provides topics for reading discussion group

Computer science Professor Bill Harrison, center back, hosts a weekly reading discussion group, open to any and all who would like to participate, that looks at scholarly publications in the field of computer security.

Rather than thought-provoking novels, Computer Science Professor Bill Harrison’s reading-discussion group tackles published papers on topics of computer security.

The University of Missouri researcher said he came up with the idea because computer security is a vast research area that examining a variety of publications gives participants an idea of what kinds of research are being done on the topic.

“It’s an easy way for people who might not know anything about the computer security field, or only what has been covered in class, to gain perspective,” Harrison said. “It’s helpful to me too, since reading a research paper doesn’t always fit into my schedule.”

Harrison received a NSF Career Award to for his research on electronic security and recently launched a research center in the College of Engineering, the Center for High Assurance Computing.

The computer security discussion group meets in a casual setting every Wednesday from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. Harrison pre-distributes the featured work to anyone expressing interest, but reading the paper before attending isn’t required as the group reads it aloud during the discussion time.

“Anyone is welcome to attend. Participants come from a variety of backgrounds and interests, and the papers are chosen from a wide range of possibilities,” Harrison said, listing hardware security, verification of cryptographic protocols, information flow security and computer viruses as examples of topics that are covered.

The new qualifying exam for computer science students seeking a doctorate requires the student to read a paper or journal article and then answer a panel’s questions about it. The discussion group additionally provides good practice for that endeavor.

A few weeks ago, the group discussed a paper written by researchers from the University of Michigan and Microsoft research: “SubVirt: Implementing malware with virtual machines.”

Adam Procter, a computer science doctoral student in Harrison’s lab — and a self-proclaimed computer nerd since the age of three — is a regular at the discussions. Of the week’s selection, Procter said, “You can’t understand computer security unless you understand what bad guys are doing.”

The paper looked at rootkits, malicious software that allows hackers to take control of an operating system without the owner-operator’s knowledge.

“A lot of what’s valuable about it for me are the real world systems that are discussed. I’m a theoretician. The abstract, mathematical view that we have is challenged by reading about the current state of the industry,” noted Procter.

“One of the cool things, since our research group is small, is that the discussion group pulls people from other groups in like Ryanne Dolan,” said Procter. He’s a grad student in CS, but he works with electrical and computer engineering-related stuff. He has an impressively deep knowledge of a really broad range of technologies, so he helps us reconcile our view of reality.”

“Some people who come understand everything we tackle and some don’t. But others in the group can help explain it,” Harrison said. “It’s alright to come and be mystified.”