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Can 'digital ants' protect computer networks?

According to researchers with Wake Forest University in North Carolina – who are working with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory – when an ant comes across an intruder, other members of the colony will assist and help deal with any unwelcome visitor.

This type of "swarming intelligence", say researchers, is at the heart of the software under development and, claims Errin Fulp, the university's professor of computer science, has the ability to monitor an electrical power grid, looking of all types of malware.

If the approach proves successful in safeguarding the power grid, Fulp's team say it could have wide-ranging applications on protecting anything connected to SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) networks, the computer systems that control everything from water and sewer management systems to mass transit systems to manufacturing systems.

Fulp and his team are working with scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, on the next steps in the digital ants technology, which has taken several years to develop.

The university claims that the approach is so promising that it was named one of the 'ten technologies' that have the power to change our lives, by Scientific American magazine last year.

According to Fulp, when the network connects to a power source, which connects to the smart grid, you have a jumping off point for computer viruses.

A cyberattack, he says, can have a real physical result of shutting off power to a city or a nuclear power plant.

The digital ants technology could transform cyber security because it adapts rapidly to changing threats, he adds.

"The idea is to deploy thousands of different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat", Fulp went on to explain, noting that as they move about the network, they leave digital trails modelled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants.

Then, each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. Stronger scent trails attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection.