Cyber Talk Radio: UTSA’s Galahad Project

Bret Piatt, CTR Host, with James Benson and Farhan Patwa from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s (UTSA) Institute for Cyber Security - Episode 154 of Cyber Talk Radio

This past Saturday, September 7, episode 154 of Cyber Talk Radio hit the air on 1200 WOAI and iHeartRadio streaming. I was joined by James Benson, tech research analyst, and Farhan Patwa, associate director and chief architect, both from UTSA’s Institute for Cyber Security to discuss the new Galahad Project, an open source user computer environment (UCE) for the Amazon Cloud. The technology will fight to protect people who use desktop applications running on digital platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS).

I start off the episode by getting to know the guests’ career backgrounds. Farhad has now worked at UTSA for six years, and before that he was at Star Lab (who created the Galahad software). He works with students researching access control and cloud technologies. James has been at UTSA for 10 years, and he’s currently at the Institute for Cyber Security helping Ph.D. students who are testing their work. The meaning of the name “Galahad Project” is from Sir Galahad, the knight of King Arthur’s round table who protected the Holy Grail — the project’s mission is to help secure the user environment, especially for government agencies and desktop environments. The software is a virtual desktop on a public cloud that limits user access to increase security. How does it run? As a discrete software component on Amazon Web Services running on separate instances. It’s available as an open source project. Their goal is to get it out to other universities so others can begin using their work as a jumping off point. What’s the difference between this and Security-Enhanced Linux? Galahad provides applications to users, by giving them different roles with accompanying access restrictions to specific applications based on their role and security needs. They’re given key- based access, each user has their own distinct key. The Galahad Project is the first production software acquired by UTSA. Before, they just worked with OpenStack for research. This is a unique opportunity because there’s a stipulation by the government to use open source for this project. People can get involved on GitHub. James and Farhad are working hard for anyone to be able to deploy it anywhere. What are some of their more in-depth background stories? Farhan was inspired by his dad’s interest in engineering and took a single C++ class that launched his career. First he worked with software in the telecom industry in Dallas. Then he moved to San Antonio and got hired at UTSA because of his experience with systems. Now, he works directly with students. James went to college for physics and got his masters, then he went on to get his Ph.D. for theoretical physics, but found out that it was too theoretical for him. He liked working with Fortran, so he went into electrical engineering and got a degree and worked at UTSA doing multiple different jobs before getting to his current role.

After the break we talk about machine learning in research and generating data sets. Machine learning is good at taking detectable patterns from data sets and making a decision based on that information. What are they doing to make sure Galahad is safe? They’ve got sensors to detect a compromise and they make sure those sensors and data receptors are acting normally and secure. They’re always testing to make sure things are safe, and double check any data/input. Eventually, they will be able to deny access to users and flag strange behavior. The guys tell me a story about building their own sensors in any language. One of their current research projects is a blackboxed antivirus tool. Many antivirus softwares are system-intensive, so they looked at system processes and put them into machine learning software. They trained the model for 97 percent detection without even running a software. Next we discuss protecting user apps versus client server apps — Galahad is meant to protect users. They have some kind of environment to build a secure infrastructure on the front end. We discuss the journey from private sector to public university — in the future they see it being an incubator for research and testing. Ideally, it can be developed and easily deployed in all types of different user interfaces for those with limited resources. At UTSA there are four different cybersecurity research groups: College of Sciences, The Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (Dr. Greg White was a previous guest on this show), National Security Collaboration Center (Dr. Nicole Beebe was also a previous guest) as well. The research at UTSA in this field is only limited by our imaginations!

Listen to the full episode replay to learn more about the Galahad Project’s mission.

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