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Professor honored by Air Force’s new Young Investigator Research Program

A Binghamton faculty member is one of 21 scientists and engineers nationwide who submitted winning proposals through the Air Force’s new Young Investigator Research Program.

Assistant Professor Scott Craver, 33, was chosen from a pool of 145 for the honor, which comes with about $300,000 in funding during the next three years. His project will focus on the identification of secret algorithms using oracle attacks.

Craver, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northern Illinois University, earned his doctorate in electrical engineering from Princeton University in 2004 and joined the faculty that year. Researchers chosen for the program had to have received their doctorates or equivalent degrees within the last five years.

Grant recipients must show exceptional ability and promise for conducting basic research. The program, Air Force officials said, is designed to foster creative basic research, enhance early career development and increase opportunities for the young investigators to recognize the Air Force mission and related challenges in science and engineering.

Craver loved codes, ciphers and secret writing as a kid in Oswego, Ill., but doubted he’d ever make a living at cryptography. He traces his later interest in computer security to a professor who gave him a problem to work on during graduate school. Craver found a way to attack a copy protection system and the technique was later named “The Craver Attack” in a digital watermarking textbook.

The approach remains Craver’s specialty. He recently led a team that won the Break Our Watermarking System Contest in which researchers were challenged to break a digital watermark while preserving the image’s quality. Other teams tried to break the watermark simply by adding progressively larger amounts of “noise” to the image. Craver’s team exploited the watermark detector provided by the contest to reverse engineer the information hiding system.

“It’s like 20 questions,” Craver said. “Our whole effort was reverse engineering. Then, once we knew how the watermark worked, we attacked it.”

Digital watermarks can be used to provide proof of ownership or as copy protection devices; in theory they could also be used to send covert messages.

Craver plans to use the Air Force funding to develop an automated process that will do what his team did during the watermark contest in a more efficient way.

The work will be relevant to any security that relies on a detection algorithm, including face-recognition and thumbprint-recognition systems. “You’re basically trying to circumvent an alarm system,” he said.

Coming to Binghamton made sense for Craver, who was attracted by the opportunity to work with security experts such as Associate Professor Jessica Fridrich.

“There’s a big demand for computer security, but there aren’t a lot of people who know how to do it,” Craver said. “It’s hard to find a university where you have other people doing the same work, so it’s a good environment.”

He has taught undergraduate courses in cryptography and security engineering as well as graduate-level classes in cryptography and information theory.

This is his second major grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which earlier provided $150,000 for other work in computer security.

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