Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles This is a lot of ones and zeros. It's what we call binary information. This is how computers talk. It's how they store information. It's how computers think. It's how computers do everything it is that computers do. I'm a cybersecurity researcher, which means my job is to sit down with this information and try to make sense of it, to try to understand what all the ones and zeroes mean. Unfortunately for me, we're not just talking about the ones and zeros I have on the screen here. We're not just talking about a few pages of ones and zeros. We're talking about billions and billions of ones and zeros, more than anyone could possibly comprehend. Now, as exciting as that sounds, when I first started doing cyber — (Laughter) — when I first started doing cyber, I wasn't sure that sifting through ones and zeros was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, because in my mind, cyber was keeping viruses off of my grandma's computer, it was keeping people's Myspace pages from being hacked, and maybe, maybe on my most glorious day, it was keeping someone's credit card information from being stolen. Those are important things, but that's not how I wanted to spend my life. But after 30 minutes of work as a defense contractor, I soon found out that my idea of cyber was a little bit off. In fact, in terms of national security, keeping viruses off of my grandma's computer was surprisingly low on their priority list. And the reason for that is cyber is so much bigger than any one of those things. Cyber is an integral part of all of our lives, because computers are an integral part of all of our lives, even if you don't own a computer. Computers control everything in your car, from your GPS to your airbags. They control your phone. They're the reason you can call 911 and get someone on the other line. They control our nation's entire infrastructure. They're the reason you have electricity, heat, clean water, food. Computers control our military equipment, everything from missile silos to satellites to nuclear defense networks. All of these things are made possible because of computers, and therefore because of cyber, and when something goes wrong, cyber can make all of these things impossible. But that's where I step in. A big part of my job is defending all of these things, keeping them working, but once in a while, part of my job is to break one of these things, because cyber isn't just about defense, it's also about offense. We're entering an age where we talk about cyberweapons. In fact, so great is the potential for cyber offense that cyber is considered a new domain of warfare. Warfare. It's not necessarily a bad thing. On the one hand, it means we have whole new front on which we need to defend ourselves, but on the other hand, it means we have a whole new way to attack, a whole new way to stop evil people from doing evil things. So let's consider an example of this that's completely theoretical. Suppose a terrorist wants to blow up a building, and he wants to do this again and again in the future. So he doesn't want to be in that building when it explodes. He's going to use a cell phone as a remote detonator. Now, it used to be the only way we had to stop this terrorist was with a hail of bullets and a car chase, but that's not necessarily true anymore. We're entering an age where we can stop him with the press of a button from 1,000 miles away, because whether he knew it or not, as soon as he decided to use his cell phone, he stepped into the realm of cyber. A well-crafted cyber attack could break into his phone, disable the overvoltage protections on his battery, drastically overload the circuit, cause the battery to overheat, and explode. No more phone, no more detonator, maybe no more terrorist, all with the press of a button from a thousand miles away. So how does this work? It all comes back to those ones and zeros. Binary information makes your phone work, and used correctly, it can make your phone explode. So when you start to look at cyber from this perspective, spending your life sifting through binary information starts to seem kind of exciting. But here's the catch: This is hard, really, really hard, and here's why. Think about everything you have on your cell phone. You've got the pictures you've taken. You've got the music you listen to. You've got your contacts list, your email, and probably 500 apps you've never used in your entire life, and behind all of this is the software, the code, that controls your phone, and somewhere, buried inside of that code, is a tiny piece that controls your battery, and that's what I'm really after, but all of this, just a bunch of ones and zeros, and it's all just mixed together. In cyber, we call this finding a needle in a stack of needles, because everything pretty much looks alike. I'm looking for one key piece, but it just blends in with everything else. So let's step back from this theoretical situation of making a terrorist's phone explode, and look at something that actually happened to me. Pretty much no matter what I do, my job always starts with sitting down with a whole bunch of binary information, and I'm always looking for one key piece to do something specific. In this case, I was looking for a very advanced, very high-tech piece of code that I knew I could hack, but it was somewhere buried inside of a billion ones and zeroes. Unfortunately for me, I didn't know quite what I was looking for. I didn't know quite what it would look like, which makes finding it really, really hard. When I have to do that, what I have to do is basically look at various pieces of this binary information, try to decipher each piece, and see if it might be what I'm after. So after a while, I thought I had found the piece I was looking for. I thought maybe this was it. It seemed to be about right, but I couldn't quite tell. I couldn't tell what those ones and zeros represented. So I spent some time trying to put this together, but wasn't having a whole lot of luck, and finally I decided, I'm going to get through this, I'm going to come in on a weekend, and I'm not going to leave until I figure out what this represents. So that's what I did. I came in on a Saturday morning, and about 10 hours in, I sort of had all the pieces to the puzzle. I just didn't know how they fit together. I didn't know what these ones and zeros meant. At the 15-hour mark, I started to get a better picture of what was there, but I had a creeping suspicion that what I was looking at was not at all related to what I was looking for. By 20 hours, the pieces started to come together very slowly — (Laughter) — and I was pretty sure I was going down the wrong path at this point, but I wasn't going to give up. After 30 hours in the lab, I figured out exactly what I was looking at, and I was right, it wasn't what I was looking for. I spent 30 hours piecing together the ones and zeros that formed a picture of a kitten. (Laughter) I wasted 30 hours of my life searching for this kitten that had nothing at all to do with what I was trying to accomplish. So I was frustrated, I was exhausted. After 30 hours in the lab, I probably smelled horrible. But instead of just going home and calling it quits, I took a step back and asked myself, what went wrong here? How could I make such a stupid mistake? I'm really pretty good at this. I do this for a living. So what happened? Well I thought, when you're looking at information at this level, it's so easy to lose track of what you're doing. It's easy to not see the forest through the trees. It's easy to go down the wrong rabbit hole and waste a tremendous amount of time doing the wrong thing. But I had this epiphany. We were looking at the data completely incorrectly since day one. This is how computers think, ones and zeros. It's not how people think, but we've been trying to adapt our minds to think more like computers so that we can understand this information. Instead of trying to make our minds fit the problem, we should have been making the problem fit our minds, because our brains have a tremendous potential for analyzing huge amounts of information, just not like this. So what if we could unlock that potential just by translating this to the right kind of information? So with these ideas in mind, I sprinted out of my basement lab at work to my basement lab at home, which looked pretty much the same. The main difference is, at work, I'm surrounded by cyber materials, and cyber seemed to be the problem in this situation. At home, I'm surrounded by everything else I've ever learned. So I poured through every book I could find, every idea I'd ever encountered, to see how could we translate a problem from one domain to something completely different? The biggest question was, what do we want to translate it to? What do our brains do perfectly naturally that we could exploit? My answer was vision. We have a tremendous capability to analyze visual information. We can combine color gradients, depth cues, all sorts of these different signals into one coherent picture of the world around us. That's incredible. So if we could find a way to translate these binary patterns to visual signals, we could really unlock the power of our brains to process this stuff. So I started looking at the binary information, and I asked myself, what do I do when I first encounter something like this? And the very first thing I want to do, the very first question I want to answer, is what is this?