DARPA makes finding software vulnerabilities fun

DARPA creates a set of games that covertly search for software vulnerabilities

DARPA’s Crowd Sourced Formal Verification (CSFV) program uses game players’ actions to find software vulnerabilities

DARPA’s Crowd Sourced Formal Verification (CSFV) program uses game players’ actions to find software vulnerabilities

The U.S. Department of Defense may have found a new way to scan millions of lines of software code for vulnerabilities, by turning the practice into a set of video games and puzzles and having volunteers do the work.

Having gamers identify potentially problematic chunks of code could help lower the work load of trained vulnerability analysts by "an order of magnitude or more," said John Murray, a program director in SRI International's computer science laboratory who helped create one of the games, called Xylem.

DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has set up a site, called Verigames, that offers five free games that can be played online or, in Xylem's case, on an Apple iPad.

Verigames is set up in a manner similar to other online crowd-sourcing projects, such as SETI@homel, which has users' computers scan for extraterrestrial signals, and Fold.it, which invites participants to play online puzzles for protein folding.

The games are designed in such a way that when users solve puzzles in order to advance to the next level of game play, they are actually generating program annotations and mathematical proofs that can identify or prove the absence of flaws in software written in either C or Java. DARPA funded the games and the portal through its Crowd Sourced Formal Verification (CSFV) program.

Formal software verification typically relies on engineers reviewing code for possible errors and omissions that could be used by an attacker to compromise a system.

This approach is slow and costly, though. DARPA is hoping the work can be reconfigured into a game format that would be enjoyable enough to interact with so that large numbers of people would do at least some of this work voluntarily. The idea is to map what in essence are really hard math problems onto puzzle games that would be fun to play, according to DARPA materials.

The vast bulk of analysis on a software program is conducted by automated testing programs, which flag sections that look questionable, Murray explained.

"We are able to take those small snippets of code that need further analysis and turn them into the parameters to generate a puzzle," he said. Certain types of vulnerabilities, such as buffer overflows or flaws that result in privilege escalation, fit particularly well to the puzzle format, Murray said.

DARPA has awarded grants to a number of companies to build games around the resulting puzzles.

In Xylem, for instance, the user explores a never seen-before tropical island and catalogues unusual plants -- which are actually representations of sections of code -- by writing short descriptions about them.

In another game, called CircuitBot, the user links up a team of robots to carry out a mission. Flow Jam requires the user to analyze and adjust a cable network to maximize its throughput.

Despite the relative benign nature of all the games, only persons 18 and over are allowed to play, due to government regulations regarding volunteer participants. Over time, however, DARPA hopes to build up a game playing community that would reduce the number of software errors in commercial and open source software.

The games are now reviewing open source programs that are being used by the Defense Department and other governmental and commercial organizations. If an error is found through game play, the agency will notify the managers of the software.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags popular scienceDefense Advanced Research Projects AgencysecurityExploits / vulnerabilities

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Joab Jackson

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

David Coyle

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

I rate the printer as a 5 out of 5 stars as it has been able to fit seamlessly into my busy and mobile lifestyle.

Kurt Hegetschweiler

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

It’s perfect for mobile workers. Just take it out — it’s small enough to sit anywhere — turn it on, load a sheet of paper, and start printing.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?