How gamers can help improve critical software security

There’s now a game where sophisticated gamers can help improve security of the country’s critical software.

SRI International, in partnership with the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Crowd-Sourced Formal Verification (CSFV) program, has created Binary Fission, a fun and accessible way for “citizen scientists” to help increase the reliability and security of mission critical software by verifying that it is free of vulnerabilities.

From a gaming perspective, the goal of Binary Fission is simple—sort colored atomic particles or “quarks” in as few steps as possible. Players use up to 100 filters to sort the particles into separate pools. As players move their cursor over a particular pool, they are shown in real time how successfully a particular filter would sort the quarks in that pool.

The game also allows more sophisticated interactions: rather than defining behavior of software elements from scratch, players can mix-and-match pre-made descriptions. The search for such descriptions—technically called “loop invariants”—takes advantage of visual pattern recognition that people are better at than computers.

Lead game designer Heather Logas of UC Santa Cruz said: “Informed by new research about formal software verification and inspired by the citizen science phenomenon, the game is both very playable and also should contribute well to the underlying science problem.”

Examples of critical software behavior, along with some pre-made invariants, are used to generate each level in Binary Fission. The quarks in the game actually represent values of variables inside the critical software, and the sorting filters represent the potential invariants to be explored and applied.

By combining filters efficiently, players can help to verify that the software is free of security vulnerabilities. Binary Fission also emphasizes community, an important aspect of successful citizen science projects, through integrated chat, active community management and regular community events.

“The auxiliary Binary Fission feature set is very light, since our goal is to keep players focused on solving problems,” said John Murray, Ph.D., program director in the Computer Science Laboratory at SRI International and principal investigator for the overall project. “However, as a citizen science project, our recruitment policy draws in players who are interested in solving cybersecurity issues.”

Currently, formal software verification is rarely used because relatively few people have the necessary training in verification techniques. In addition, finding loop invariants in software programs has historically been a challenging task requiring extensive training and insight.

“SRI is well versed in formal software verification, with over a quarter of a century spent assuring that mission-critical computer systems are error-free, secure and interoperable. We are pleased to work with our partners in DARPA’s highly innovative, creative and fun program,” said Patrick Lincoln, Ph.D., director of SRI’s Computer Science Laboratory. “We learned a lot of valuable lessons with our first game of this type, Xylem. For our gaming approach to succeed, we need a more sophisticated game for a more sophisticated audience. We have leveled up our research, and with more automation, interaction and sophistication, Binary Fission is our best game yet.”

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