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The nation's cyber defense systems are like an unlocked front door, a University of Utah professor says.

And U. computer science professor Matt Might, who just won a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, plans to add more deadbolts.

A team of 10 U. computer scientists is working on software to thwart a new wave of sophisticated plots that target the algorithms — or calculations — that run modern computers.

In partnership with programmers at the University of California, Irvine, the U. team will focus on improving detection of for-hire attacksĀ­, which are complicated and as expensive as $500,000 to mount. Typically, only nation states have the resources to direct them, but that could change.

The newer versions "don't leave the same kind of footprints as a traditional attack," said Matt Might, a U. professor of computer science and team co-leader, said Monday.

Last week, Might's team won $2 million in grant money for the project. UC Irvine received $1 million.

The nation's current cyber defense systems are like an unlocked front door, he said. There's no point in cyber thiefs climbing a ladder up to the open window.

But once the first-floor doors are locked, "attackers are going to start buying ladders," Might said. "That's what this next generation of vulnerabilities is all about."

Hackers have typically targeted mistakes in programming as a way into computer systems. But newer, more advanced attacks track paths of algorithms or the amount of energy a computer is using to get information. They also can send a system's central processing unit into overdrive or cause it to use too much memory.

The U. team is planning to create software that will use mathematical simulations to spot algorithmic weaknesses or "hot spots" in the code. Might plans regular "hackathons" to test the teams' work.

The project is among 10 funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.