Finding better ways to protect your information

AMES, Iowa -- Think of all the computerized information the Principal Financial Group needs to protect.

With roughly 15 million customers, 14,000 employees and more than $180 billion of assets, the company manages lots of electronic information.

A new national center based at Iowa State University will bring together university researchers and industry professionals to solve information security problems so that information entrusted to companies such as The Principal stays confidential.

Doug Jacobson -- the director of Iowa State University's Information Assurance Center and an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering -- will direct the new Center for Information Protection. The center is being launched with a $120,000, two-year grant from the National Science Foundation. It is a collaboration of Iowa State, the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, the National Science Foundation and industry partners. The industry partners pay fees of $15,000 or $30,000 and share in the center's findings. To date, 12 companies have joined the center.

Jacobson said the center's goal is to focus researchers on some of the immediate problems facing the center's industry partners. He said the center's research projects will typically last one year. The research will be completed by faculty members, graduate students and undergraduates.

The center's researchers and industry partners will meet in Ames Oct. 3-4 to develop a research agenda. Research work is expected to start this fall.

Jacobson said Iowa and Iowa State are ideal places for the new center.

"Iowa is in a great position to be a hotbed for security research," he said. "Iowa State has one of the best programs with a large pool of students and faculty. And Iowa has large insurance and financial industries. There are lots of problems to be solved."

Gary Scholten, a senior vice president and chief information officer for the Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, said the company joined the new center with hopes it can find help with some of its security and privacy needs.

"Being a large financial services company, security is certainly an area that The Principal is very focused on," he said. "We're always looking to expand our research and development in information security for the benefit of our customers."

The partnership gives the company some access to Iowa State facilities such as the Internet-Scale Event and Attack Generation Environment, a one-of-a kind virtual Internet that helps researchers create and test computer defenses. It will also help company officials identify students they might want to recruit for jobs.

Jim Bauhs, the information protection manager for plant operations for Cargill, Incorporated in Minneapolis, said the center also helps researchers and students understand the real problems faced by industry.

And he said the center provides a chance for university researchers and industry professionals to work together to answer one question: "How do we eliminate unacceptable risks?"

"Security is the universal issue," Bauhs said. "It crosses all boundaries. No one sector, or suborganization or any one organization has the answers."

He thinks the mixing of ideas from campus labs and company offices could lead to novel solutions to industry problems.

"This has a lot of potential," Bauhs said. "The investment can very easily pay for itself."

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