Johns Hopkins at forefront of new push to make computer programs hack-proof

Johns Hopkins and four other schools have won a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish the Center for Encrypted Functionalities, through which researchers will devise encryption methods to mask from outside observers the inner workings of computer programs. The technique is called obfuscation.

The five-year project that starts immediately is a collaboration between Johns Hopkins, UCLA, Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Columbia University.

"We're doing a lot of the basic research on trying to understand how obfuscation works," says Susan Hohenberger, an associate research professor in the School of Engineering's Department of Computer Science, who is leading the Johns Hopkins team. "We're scrambling the code in a mathematical way so that you can run it, but you can't do anything but run it."

This sort of "next level" encryption method will foil most hackers, Hohenberger says, leading to more-secure software for the government, businesses, and individuals.

Johns Hopkins researchers will be involved in all aspects of the project, researching obfuscation techniques and developing free online courses that will allow programmers and students worldwide to learn about cryptography.

The project is one of the bigger components of the National Science Foundation's new $74.5 million Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace initiative that's footing the bill for more than 225 cybersecurity research and education projects in 39 states.

"The cybersecurity research and education efforts we support enable our nation to continue as a world leader in innovating secure technologies and solutions," Farnam Jahanian, head of NSF's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, said in a statement. "These awards will enable novel approaches to cybersecurity, with potential benefits to all sectors of our economy."