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  • 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?