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How does the MIT Media Lab protect its ideas of the future from cybercrime?

They use empow today.

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Bloomberg radio

Click here to listen the Bloomberg radio interview with MIT Media Lab’s Director of Network and Computing Systems Michail Bletsas and Founder and CEO of empow, Avi Chesla.

Read the full interview transcript
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Interviewer

MIT hires an outside firm to handle its cyber security.
Why is this news?

Well, for starters, its MIT is where the best and brightest develop this kind of stuff, but there is a bigger story here, one that illustrates the growing debate over privacy versus security.

So listen, we have a couple of guests in the studio now, we were intrigued.
We have first of all Michail Bletsas, he’s Director of Network and Computing Systems at the MIT Media Lab, and along his side is Avi Chesla, who’s Founder and CEO of empow

Now let’s get into this a little bit Michail, you were looking for some cyber security, and you went outside MIT, and I’m going to say to our listeners, that right there was the headline, stop, because MIT, looking outside? This is kind of like Ted Williams going to a batting coach.

Michail Bletsas

Well, you know, MIT is pretty large and cannot cover, you know has stopped covering its technological needs internally since 60 or 70 or 80 years ago. I mean, we do have to buy things from outside vendors. But cybersecurity is a very large field, it’s a very dynamic field, and requires a very complex approach with components sourced from all over the place.

Interviewer

And what’s interesting from my point of view is the particular needs that you have in a university setting. It’s different from a corporation, tell us about that a little bit and then we’ll get into some of the….

Michail Bletsas

Well, its different, its definitely different from a corporation in the sense that most universities, most research labs, we are one piece of MIT, we are the media lab, MIT is much much bigger then us, but especially in labs we need to have a very open network. In a lab like the media lab, the network is not part of the infrastructure, its our pants, its our lab pants, we do things…

Interviewer

Plus you have people who work with ideas and they need to share things.

Michail Bletsas

We need to share things, we need to be open. And like most corporate networks that are very closed, down to the very specific functions that people have prescribed ahead for them. In our case we are looking for new uses all the time, so we can’t really have a closed network. That makes us a very nice, big, open, juicy target for security attacks.

Interviewer

For hackers, bad guys, for hackers.

Michail Bletsas

For bad hackers, for curious hackers…. for all sorts of people.

Interviewer

So lets here about Avi now, tell us about empow Networks, is it a startup, did you go to MIT as well? How did you all get together, and what are you doing specifically for MIT?

Avi Chesla

First of all empow is an Israeli bases startup in Tel Aviv, so I came from Tel Aviv. I currently live in Boston, but I founded the company about three years ago, so its still a startup but we already have customers all over the world.
And the whole idea, which is connected to what Michail just said, was to create some kind of layer, intelligent layer, on top of these networks like university campuses, and help them really orchestrate all the resources, detect and prevent better…

Interviewer

Now Avi this is where it gets applicable to many, many parts of our society. You had to, it seems to me you had to come up with something for Michail that was secure, it helped with all of that, but it also protected people’s privacy in a way that maybe the corporate world does not. Can you explain that a little bit, how do you do this, how do you make a cake without breaking some eggs, if you will?

Avi Chesla

Yeah, so this is maybe the main challenge in university campuses. What we have developed is a system that can sit on top of this network configuration and use the existing data. We are not providing more tools, that need to sit and copy or listen to traffic, and by that maybe breach some privacy rules. We are using the existing data of the network, of the servers, operating system and so on, and we developed an AI technology that knows how to decipher really if there is any malicious intent behind these data pieces, assemble them together to see if there is some kind of, something bad developing inside the organization and help them to automate their response.

Interviewer

So Michail Bletsis. the MIT Media Lab, how, I guess I would ask you how you’re satisfied with the product so far, but here’s the better question I think: What can the outside world, what can people other than MIT, take away from this? What was useful in a universal way here?

Michail Bletsas

The main take out, take away, is that we require to address the orthogonality, the apar orthogonality between privacy and security. Most people assume that this is a given.

Interviewer

Explain that word.

Michail Bletsas

Basically, you need to compromise privacy. You need to look into more and more and more information that has…personal information, in order to be able to have a more complete picture of what’s going on in your network. This is the main dimension that we work with here, and it’s an open question that has a lot of research dimensions to it, and that’s why we are working with empow.

Its not a given, but most people assume that in order to do security, you have to, for example, log all traffic that goes in and out of the network, or you have to look into every packet that comes in and out of your network. And that, apart from not being practical, forget about the practical limitations, also compromises privacy of people, because somebody has to go and, inadvertently, not even by looking at it, but you may end up seeing information that you shouldn’t be seeing. And that is something that we are very sensitive about in a university environment, because we can afford to be.

Interviewer

And I think that, as I said, the corporate world could probably take some lessons here. Michail Bletsas, the MIT Media Lab, Director of Network and Computing Systems, and Avi Chesla, Founder and CEO of empow . Gentlemen, we thank you for your insights today.