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Vulnerabilities / Threats

Security Researcher Wins Prestigious MacArthur "Genius" Grant

Dawn Song, head of the Berkeley lab that developed BitBlaze, will get $500,000 for more research

A security researcher was among 23 individuals who received the prestigious MacArthur "genius" Fellow awards yesterday.

The award winners, which each receive $500,000 to spend over five years of research in a promising field, come from all disciplines, ranging from economics to science. The award is given by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Dawn Song, 35, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California-Berkeley, is being recognized for her innovative work on protecting computer systems from malware.

The MacArthur Foundation cited Song's approach of identifying security breaches by identifying underlying patterns of computer system behavior that can be applied across whole classes of security vulnerability, rather than focusing on specific errors in programming logic.

"The call was out of the blue and such a pleasant surprise," said Song, about learning the news. In an interview with the MacArthur Foundation, she discussed the potential impact of the award on her ability to pursue unconventional research.

"To me, life is about creating something truly beautiful, and in order to do that, often it involves taking a path that is less traveled," she said. "The MacArthur fellowship will allow me to take that path to explore new territory that other people have not walked."

One of Song's project topics is analogous to biological defenses against infection. Much like our human immune system is constantly on the lookout for invaders, the BitBlaze program developed by Song's lab scans and analyzes binaries of vulnerable software and malicious code, and automatically identifies the root cause of attacks to generate defenses.

Song's lab is now working on the next generation of BitBlaze, making it more scalable and powerful than its predecessor. Her group is also exploring how to extend this technology to other areas, such as networked medical devices and systems.

Another area Song plans to pursue is better protection of users' privacy when they go online. "A lot of sensitive data about people are being collected on the Internet, such as users who use online social networks or cloud-based services," Song said. "A big question is how we can protect users' privacy without hindering their ability to use these services."

Song's work in security and privacy issues has already garnered her quite a bit of attention, earning her a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for young faculty, an MIT Technology Review Award for being among the world's top young innovators, a Guggenheim fellowship, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, and the IBM Faculty Award, among many others.

Before coming to UC Berkeley, Song was an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She obtained her Bachelor's degree in physics from Tsinghua University in China in 1996, her Master's in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University in 1999, and her Ph.D. in computer science from UC Berkeley in 2002.

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