SMU In The News Subfeature Technology

Software developed by SMU stops ransomware attacks

Ransomware attacks have become more common since COVID-19 pandemic

DALLAS (SMU) – Engineers from SMU’s Darwin Deason Institute for Cybersecurity have developed software that detects ransomware attacks before attackers can inflict catastrophic damage.

Ransomware — a type of malware infection that causes important data files to be locked and prevents users from accessing their important data until the hacker is paid — is crippling cities and businesses all over the world, and the number of ransomware attacks have increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Attackers are also threatening to publicly release sensitive data if ransom isn’t paid. The FBI estimates that ransomware victims have paid hackers more than $140 million in the last six-and-a-half years.

Unlike existing methods, such as antivirus software or other intrusion detection systems, SMU’s new software works even if the ransomware is new and has not been used before.

SMU’s detection method is known as sensor-based ransomware detection because the software doesn’t rely on information from past ransomware infections to spot new ones on a computer. In contrast, existing technology needs signatures of past infections to do its job.

“With this software we are capable of detecting what’s called zero-day ransomware because it’s never been seen by the computer before,” said Mitch Thornton, executive director of the Deason Institute and professor of electrical and computer engineering in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. “Right now, there’s little protection for zero-day ransomware, but this new software spots zero-day ransomware more than 95 percent of the time.”

The new software also can scan a computer for ransomware much faster than existing software, said Mike Taylor, lead creator of the software and a Ph.D. student at SMU.

“The results of testing this technique indicate that rogue encryption processes can be detected within a very small fraction of the time required to completely lock down all of a user’s sensitive data files,” Taylor noted. “So the technique
detects instances of ransomware very quickly and well before extensive damage occurs to the victim’s computer files.”

Southern Methodist University (SMU) has filed a patent application for this technique with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Lyle Engineering students Taylor, a cybersecurity Ph.D. student, and Kaitlin N. Smith, a recent electrical engineering Ph.D. graduate, created the software, along with Thornton.

New software enables existing sensors to detect ransomware

“Ransomware is malware that enters a victim’s computer system and silently encrypts its stored files. It then alerts the user that they must pay a ransom, typically in a non-traceable currency such as bitcoin, in order to receive the key to decrypt their files,” Thornton explained. “It also tells the victim that if they do not pay the ransom within a certain time period, the key for decryption will be destroyed and thus, they will lose their data.”

SMU’s software functions by searching for small, yet distinguishable changes in certain sensors that are found inside computers to detect when unauthorized encryptions are taking place.

When attackers encrypt files, certain circuits inside the computer have specific types of power surges as files are scrambled. Computer sensors that measure temperature, power consumption, voltage levels, and other characteristics can detect these specific types of surges, SMU researchers found.

The SMU software monitors the sensors to look for the characteristic surges. And when a suspicious surge is detected, the software immediately alerts the computer to suspend or terminate the ransomware infection from completing the encryption process.

Use of the computer’s own devices to spot ransomware “is completely different than anything else that’s out there,” Taylor said.

About the Darwin Deason Institute for Cybersecurity
The mission of The Deason Institute, which is part of SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, is to advance the science, policy, application and education of cyber security through basic and problem-driven, interdisciplinary research.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

Health & Medicine Researcher news SMU In The News Subfeature Technology

Dallas Innovates: Gamers join scientific research to help end the COVID-19 threat

BALANCED Media|Technology and Complexity Gaming have launched a citizen science effort that will test drug compounds against coronavirus, helping SMU sift through possible treatments faster

Source: HEWMEN

DALLAS (SMU) – While medical professionals everywhere have been hard at work for months searching for a cure to the COVID-19 virus, an unlikely industry has emerged to join the fight: the video game community, Dallas Innovates’ Alex Edwards reports.

A new effort from BALANCED Media|Technology (BALANCED) and Complexity Gaming intends to garner spare computer processing power that could help find treatments for coronavirus. The two Dallas-based organizations are encouraging anyone that works with video games to donate to the citizen science/crowdsourcing initiative called #WeAreHEWMEN, Edwards explains.

The BALANCED’s HEWMAN app will use gamers’ processing power to go through more than 200,000 FDA medications and compounds, with help from SMU computational biologist John Wise. Using these 200,000 compounds, between 1.5 to 3 million virtual experiments will be run, simulating attempts to dock compounds to specific locations on the virus. By identifying the compounds with the highest probability of success at treating coronavirus, Wise, who works in SMU’s Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery, can test new treatments faster and therefore, potentially get a viable treatment to the market more quickly.

Read the story about this innovative collaboration here.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.




Learning & Education SMU In The News Subfeature

New study by SMU professors details how homeless students are doing educationally in Houston ISD

DALLAS (SMU) – A new report by SMU professors Alexandra Pavlakis and Meredith Richards details how homeless students in Houston ISD are faring educationally.

SMU’s Simmons professors Alexandra Pavlakis and Meredith Richards look at research information with Kessa Roberts, post doctoral fellow.

Released by the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University, the report makes clear that homeless students are at an elevated risk of a range of adverse educational outcomes, and the findings also highlight the complexity of the relationship between homelessness and student outcomes. Pavlakis and Richards, who are both assistant professors at SMU’s Simmons School of Education & Human Development, looked at students who were homeless from 2012-13 to 2016-17, the years immediately preceding Hurricane Harvey.

Some of the key findings include:

  • Students experiencing homelessness were more likely to drop out of school than their matched, non-homeless peers.
  • Students who were homeless four and five years tended to have higher attendance than students who were homeless for shorter periods of time.
  • Unaccompanied youth had substantially lower attendance than accompanied homeless students, and less likely to pass the STAAR exams than accompanied homeless students.
  • Where students sleep matters. Attendance gaps were large for unsheltered students and students in motels.
  • Interestingly, homeless students tended to perform better on STAAR exams than their matched peers. This could hint at the potential value of educational supports and resources inherent in McKinney-Vento Act or provided at shelters or drop-in centers for homelessness. However, homeless students were also somewhat less likely to take STAAR tests—particularly in math.

Pavlakis and Richards also make recommendations on what the school district might consider to improve student outcomes. Simmons post doctoral fellow Kessa Roberts, Ph.D. assisted with the research. The Moody Foundation and SMU’s University Research Council supported the research. This is a long-term project for the researchers.

Click here for the report.


About Simmons School of Education & Human Development

The Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at SMU (Southern Methodist University) reflects the University’s vision of serving the most important educational needs of our city, region and nation, graduating students for successful careers in a variety of fields and providing educational opportunities beyond traditional degree programs. Recognized as a unique and transformative leader in education research, practice and policy, the School is committed to rigorous, research-driven programs that promote evidence-based, effective practices in education and human development.


About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.



Health & Medicine SMU In The News Subfeature

SMU Center for Family Counseling offers free remote services

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU’s Center for Family Counseling is now offering free telehealth counseling to anyone who needs it during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What started as a work-around to help the community during this period of mandatory social distancing has proved to be so successful that the center will continue offering remote counseling even after the staff returns to seeing patients in-person.

The clinic, associated with SMU’s Master’s in Counseling program, provides a variety of counseling services to adults, adolescents and children who are dealing with anxiety, depression, behavior difficulties, grief and loss, stress and parenting. Like many other businesses and clinics in Dallas, SMU’s Center for Family Counseling has temporarily closed its offices to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Clinic staff recognized, however, that because they were forced to close the clinic’s doors, there might be more people in need of mental health services related to isolation and other stay-at-home issues, said Clinic Director Terra Wagner.

“So we moved to offering services via Zoom,” Wagner said. “However, we plan to continue offering telehealth services, even when we return to seeing clients in person,” she said, explaining that they discovered they can serve more clients using a combination of telehealth and in-person appointments.

The Center for Family Counseling normally operates on a sliding scale fee system to accommodate low-income clients, with charges ranging from $5 to a maximum of $45 per session. All services will be free until further notice, Wagner said.

In addition to the telehealth counseling, five new remote support groups are also open for registration, free of charge: Adult Mindfulness Group, Adolescent Support Group, LGBTQ+ Parenting/Caregiver Support Group, LGBTQ+ Adolescent Support Group and LGBTQ+ Adult Support Group. These support groups started will meet via Zoom. Registration for all groups will remain open until groups end on May 7.

Counselors at the center are graduate students in the Master’s in Counseling program offered by SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. They have completed most of their coursework as well as clinical skills classes to prepare to work with clients under faculty supervision. The program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.

The clinic helps address the national shortage of mental health professionals by training counselors and providing affordable services. According to a spring 2019 report by Mental Health Dallas, the state of Texas is home to the second highest number of areas in the United States with a mental health professional shortage.

Earlier this year, SMU relocated the Center for Family Counseling from Plano to a new Dallas location in Expressway Tower, 6116 N. Central Expressway, Suite 410. Services are offered Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. To schedule an appointment, please call 214-768-6789. If the Center for Family Counseling can’t meet your needs, you will be referred to another provider.


About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.


SMU In The News Subfeature Technology

Cybersecurity matters more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic

DALLAS (SMU)  The coronavirus pandemic isn’t just a serious threat to people’s health. It’s also giving cybercriminals the perfect opportunity to access your computer and potentially steal sensitive information, warns an SMU cybersecurity expert. 
Mitch Thorntonexecutive director of the Deason Institute for Cyber Security in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, said there are a number of factors that make cybersecurity especially important during this virus pandemic. 
“People are going to be spending more time on the Internet because many of us have been asked to do work from home to keep the virus from spreading,” he said.
That means more opportunities for people to download dangerous software that was created by hackers, whether by fake emails that look like they came from work or by bogus ads for online shopping, Thornton said. Employees may also be less familiar with the online software that allow them to communicate with their co-workers from home, increasing the chances they may be tricked by a hacker. 
“People are also going to be interested in reading about the virus, learning about new advances and monitoring where the new cases are happening,” Thornton said. “So the adversaries are likely going to be targeting web pages and emails that offer that kind of content.”
For instance, he said, sending very sensational and possibly untrue new stories can be used to get people’s attention, distract them and prompt them to click on malicious links more quickly. “Imposter emails from authorities and medical personnel will likely also be more prevalent,” Thornton said.
Additionally, several coronavirus-related schemes have emerged to trick the public into downloading software they shouldn’t. But Thornton said there are ways you can keep your computer safe:
  • When you look for information online about the coronavirus, be sure that the sources are trusted. And be on the lookout for websites and emails that are designed to look like legitimate sources but are actually malicious. For example, a website may use a name, look or feel of a legitimate government agency, but have one letter off or a different color from the real website. 
  • Avoid giving personal information online unless you are very familiar with the website. Hackers may try to get your information by creating fake charities asking for donations for COVID-19.    
  • If you’re doing video conferencing for work, take a look at the background that will be appearing behind you. There may be private information that your webcam can pick out, and you can’t be sure who may be watching.  
About SMU
SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.