As ransomware attacks multiply, SUNY steps up

Fighting back: With global ransomware attacks on the rise, Stony Brook University will take the battle to the hackers.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

With fresh ransomware attacks spreading chaos around the globe, Stony Brook University is stepping up its cybersecurity game.

Leveraging $4.5 million in grants issued this week by the SUNY Empire Innovation Program, SBU is engaging an intensive recruitment effort to attract major minds in the fields of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.

The stipend from the EIP, a state-funded competitive grant program focused on recruiting and retaining top faculty throughout the SUNY system, will not only bolster an already world-class faculty but “strengthen Stony Brook’s research productivity in two high economic-opportunity areas of state and national significance,” according to the university.

Samuel Stanley Jr.: Intelligent approach to AI.

The “national significance” part couldn’t be clearer: Less than two months after nefarious hackers executed the largest ransomware cyberattack ever recorded, a fresh ransomware attack – in which a virus locks up networks and individual computers and demands payment (in bitcoins, usually) to free them – has hit companies, hospitals and banks across Europe and the United States over the last two days.

Among the targets of this week’s attack were hospitals in the Pennsylvania-based Heritage Valley Health System, which was forced to cancel surgeries after patient medical records became inaccessible. Also hit: New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. and Mondelez International, a major international food company that distributes Oreo cookies and other popular brands, also based in New Jersey.

With those stinging cyberattacks in mind, the EIP grants arrive on a virtual white horse. The $4.5 million will help Stony Brook in its efforts to develop new Big Data, hardware, mobile and operating-systems security protocols, with new faculty funded by the grants working hand-in-virtual-hand with SBU’s National Security Institute.

The National Security Institute is part of an Interdisciplinary Faculty Cluster Hiring Initiative undertaken in accordance with the SUNY 2020 plan. The cluster hires target society’s most vexing challenges – in this case, data security – through multidisciplinary collaborations.

Stony Brook’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the official EIP grant recipient, will also use the state’s capital investment to accelerate development of its Institute for AI-Driven Discovery & Innovation. The artificial-intelligence institute – which will be the 17th institute, center or economic-development program under the CEAS banner – is a collaboration between the engineering college and the SBU School of Medicine, with faculty from both schools sharing their engineering and medical expertise.

The new institute will also serve as a hub for “AI research thrusts” at SBU while “advancing Stony Brook’s position as a leader in AI research,” the university said. The main goals will be new artificial-intelligence applications in medicine, connected “smart” environments and infrastructure, along with the development of new machine-learning technologies.

With the National Security Institute already clicking and the Institute for AI-Driven Discovery & Innovation ready to leap off the drawing board, SBU has already “played a nationally prominent role in AI and cybersecurity research,” noted University President Samuel Stanley Jr.

The EIP support will advance all that to higher levels, the president added.

“We have recently undertaken a bold strategic initiative in engineering-driven medicine for which AI technology and cybersecurity of medical data are significant drivers,” Stanley said Wednesday. “This grant will enable us to recruit leading faculty researchers and invest added resources with our current researchers as they together pursue excellence in advancing these fields.”

It’s a boon not only for the university and its researchers, but for “the AI-driven economy of the future,” according to SBU. New educational programs conducted by the beefed-up faculty will generate professionals in fields ranging from interdisciplinary data science and machine learning to science communication and technology policy, while encouraging entrepreneurship at every step.

The Institute for AI-Driven Discovery & Innovation – which figures to operate primarily out of the university’s $40 million Computer Science Building, which opened in 2015, and its Medicine and Research Translation facility, slated to open next year – will also “stimulate the regional economy by providing local industry and entrepreneurs with advanced technology training,” the university said.

The two SBU grants cap a generous week for the Empire Innovation Program, which on June 22 awarded three grants – also totaling $4.5 million – to the University at Buffalo to facilitate the hiring of top scholars in robotics, systems pharmacology and X-ray laser technology for structural biology research.