Symantec-UC Berkeley Symposium 2012
While diplomats frequently refer to high-level meetings as “a productive exchange of ideas,” this symposium was the real deal — a whole lot of learning going on. Participants even shared theories about how to synch laptops with projection equipment (top left). Top right: CITRIS director Paul Wright gives a brief anatomy lesson about his complex organization. Bottom left, Symantec Research Labs director Marc Dacier and Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri took a moment from their conversation, and (bottom right) questions and answers flew back and forth during breaks between presentations. (photos: Dick Cortén)

On February 15, two normally quite separate entities got together — to exchange ideas and information, and to simply get to know each other better. That was the plan, and it clearly worked.

They spent the entire afternoon together, and part of the evening, attempting to drink from the proverbial information firehose. The parties involved were key players from Symantec Corporation, of security software fame, and from the advance guard of Berkeley campus research in computer security and related areas. The host for the northside gathering in Sutardja Dai Hall was Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri, whose earlier contact with Symantec had catalyzed and grown into this ambitious encounter.

Symantic has grown far beyond its iconic home-and-office security products (such as Norton AntiVirus); with its world headquarters across the bay in Mountain View, the company has around 20,000 employees in more than 50 countries and its products and services provide security, storage and systems management solutions to help consumers, small businesses, and large global organizations.  (It was founded in 1982 with the aid of a National Science Foundation grant.) With hundreds of employees in the Symantec Research Labs division alone, the company is deeply interested in staying abreast of what’s happening at the cutting edge of knowledge. Some of that research is happening within its own walls, and that’s of interest to scientists at Berkeley, many of whom are also in the vanguard of these research areas — and therefore their work at Cal is magnetically interesting to their counterparts at Symantec. All of which made the February gathering a success waiting to happen.

Chief among the Symantec contingent was Marc Dacier, the senior director of Symantec Research Labs. He was accompanied by a phalanx of colleagues, one with a Berkeley engineering degree, the rest trained at institutions from the Bay Area to India and China, from Symantec’s research and recruiting arms. They would become acquainted not only with the extraordinary research conducted by faculty and grad students at Berkeley, but also with ways the company could deepen its relationship with the campus. Dacier told the Berkeley participants that, as large as his company is, “We recognize the importance of tapping into many more brains than we actually have at Symantec,” and that although “we’re known for protecting and managing information, there’s a lot more to Symantec than that. But yes, we do anti-virus, and now cloud-based anti-spam as well, since as much as 90 percent of the messages that arrive in all our inboxes is garbage. We cleanse this e-mail in the cloud, handling on the order of nine billion messages a day.”

This collegial session was not the kind of event that’s webcast for a more general audience; it got fairly technical, and the participants were quite comfortable with that. (Also on hand to hear both sides of the exchange — and to network — were Berkeley graduate students in computer security, history, and political science.)

Among those telling Berkeley’s story were administrators and professors, whose affiliations alone often spoke volumes about what they brought to the table. They included:

  • Dawn Song, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and 2010 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, whose expertise is in computer security, privacy, and cryptography; she spoke of her research project DroidBlaze, which aims to provide tools for assessing the security of applications created for the Android mobile phone operating system, a vast cyber ecosystem where many vulnerabilities are being exploited by malicious software to steal user information or, in Song’s phrase, to “turn your phone into a zombie.”  (Song earned her Ph.D. at Berkeley in 2002.)
  • Cathryn Carson, associate professor of history and associate dean in the Division of Social Sciences in the College of Letters and Science, who directs the pioneering D-Lab (in the Institute for Integrative Social Services), which helps scholars transform vastly proliferating information into data that can be analyzed, understood, and used in the social sciences and beyond.
  • Shankar Sastry, engineering professor, dean of the College of Engineering (third-ranked in the nation), and a three-degree Berkeley product (M.S. ’79, M.A. ’80, Ph.D. ’81). Sastry is also the director and principal investigator of the six-university leading-edge research center called TRUST (the Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology).
  • Larry Rohrborough, executive director of TRUST, which, as a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center, is focused on the development of cybersecurity science and technology that will radically transform the ability of organizations to design, build, and operate trustworthy information systems for the nation’s critical infrastructure.
  • Marti Hearst, professor in the School of Information (a three-degree Berkeley alumna (B.S. ’85, M.S. ’89, and Ph.D. ’94), expert in search engine user interfaces, natural language, and social media analysis. She talked about how people using search engines respond to the way results are presented and what they comprehend, and how she and her students are helping scholars in the humanities speed their research through large volumes of text (through tools like WordSeer, the creation of her student Aditi Muralidharan, profiled here.)
  • Michael Franklin, EECS professor and director of the AMP Lab (the abbreviation stands for Algorithms, Machines, People, and hints that all three are necessary, and have their own limits, when devising software). The lab mixes faculty from many fields and has extensive partnerships with companies.
  • Paul Wright, mechanical engineering professor and director of CITRIS (the very-far-reaching multi-institutional Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society).
  • Masoud Nikraveskh, the CITRIS director for Computational Science and Engineering, whose program involves over 120 faculty from 22 departments and graduate programs, and partners with LBNL for its massive computing power. Nikravesh underscored Cathryn Carson’s point that social scientists are becoming (as they must) fluent in larger-scale computing; of the 32 Ph.D. students doing research in his program, he said, the first group came from the Haas School of Business, and they were followed by a number from the School of Public Health.
  • Vern Paxson, EECS professor, whose research takes him and his grad students into “what really happens in the world.” They’ve infiltrated malware in order to track where it comes from and what its intent is. In a recent project, by posing as customers, they followed the money transactions — yes, many people do try to buy what they think is Viagra or Cialis from unknown email senders — and found that 95 percent of those sales were hosted by three foreign banks. This kind of specific information would allow American district attorneys and the credit card provider to put pressure on the individual banks to discourage the fraudulent activity.

Results from the high-powered gathering might play out in quiet ways. Keep your eyes peeled for, perhaps, the name Symantec attached to a new research partnership or more Berkeley Ph.D.s appearing on their employee roster.

(photos: Dick Cortén)