Venkat Venkatakrishnan fights cyber crime

Venkat Venkatakrishnan, associate professor of computer science, follows the trail hackers leave when they infiltrate computer systems, then fixes the holes. Photo: Joshua Clark

He is a cybercrook’s worst nightmare.

Venkat Venkatakrishnan, associate professor of computer science, traces how hackers infiltrate computer systems, then plugs the holes.

He’s repaired company websites where hackers could “basically shop for free,” he said.

Or for only $1, as with one computer parts store where an unscrupulous online shopper could enter a negative price.

“They could compute a [product] cost of minus $400, then add another product for $401, and get both items for $1,” Venkatakrishnan said.

For banks, he identified a glitch in their software.

“This flaw would enable a malicious hacker to transfer arbitrary amounts between unrelated accounts,” he said.

After he reported this to the banks, he said, “they disabled this transfer feature for 24 hours, worked on this fix and changed the software on the 350 banks that were running this software.”

Venkatakrishnan impressed colleagues in 2010 by securing a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to set up an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship.

“We got excellent reviews from NSF,” he said. “Only 18 proposals were funded out of 450.”

Most of the money goes to fellowships for 10 Ph.D. students involved in the first year of the program.

“It includes a visit to a foreign country, to collaborate with researchers there,” Venkatakrishnan said.

“The cyberworld has no borders. An attacker might be pushing keys somewhere in China or Eastern Europe.”

For another facet of the traineeship, he put together a team of faculty experts: Ranga Chandrasekaran, business, who examined economic factors in security; Steve Jones, communication, who looks at the human factor; Annette Valenta, biomedical and health information sciences, who considers medical privacy; Robert Sloan, computer science, who studies security and public policy; and Richard Warner of the Kent College of Law, IIT, who focuses on legal issues.

“We’ve also made a lot of progress in other research areas,” he said. “It’s all synergistic. Last year alone we got more than $8 million in grants.”

Venkatakrishnan, director of the Center for Research and Instruction in Technologies for Electronic Security, welcomes the chance to match wits with bad-guy hackers.

“It’s very challenging — there are many different avenues an attacker can take on the system,” he said. “It has the flavor of a puzzle, it takes adversarial thinking. I find it really enjoyable.”

Hackers aren’t always the problem.

When Cook County voting machines suffered a large-scale failure in November 2006, Venkatakrishnan was named to a blue-ribbon panel to put things right.

The researchers and professors worked on the problem for a few months, then delivered a report with recommendations that were later implemented.

He continues to serve on the Cook County Election Review Panel for addressing technical problems related to electronic voting equipment.

Venkatakrishnan is from a small town in India, where his family still lives, in the Pondicherry territory.

“Pondicherry was famous when the rest of India was under Britain — it was a French colony,” he said.

“Another claim to fame is that in the [novel and movie] Life of Pi, the main character is from there.”

Venkatakrishnan earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees with honors in mathematics from India’s Birla Institute of Technology and Science.

He came to the United States in 1998.

“This country has got the best universities,” he said. “I wanted to do my Ph.D. in this country.”

He received another master’s, in computer science, from Stony Brook University in New York. He stayed on for his Ph.D., maintaining a 4.0 GPA throughout.

In 2004, Venkatakrishnan was offered a teaching job at UIC.

“I had always wanted to be a teacher,” he said.

He has won several campus honors, including the Teaching Recognition Program Award, the College of Engineering’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Research Excellence Award.

Venkatakrishnan lives in Lincoln Park with his wife, Kavitha, a biomedical researcher and science writer, and their 2-year-old son, Siddharth.

“I like to watch a lot of independent films,” he said. He founded the Stony Brook Film Society while in grad school, and is now a member of the Gene Siskel Film Center.

His family lives right across from Lincoln Park Zoo, a favorite destination along with the Museum of Science and Industry.

Like many toddlers, Siddharth likes trucks and trains.

“On a weekend if I’m not busy, you will spot me on one of the CTA trains with my son,” Venkatakrishnan said.

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