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Michael Beechert’s Guide to the Stars: Computer Science Professor Sean Smith

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Sean Smith.jpgSean Smith is Professor of Computer Science and an expert in information security. As yet another example of a faculty member whose work has applications outside the university setting, Professor Smith approaches his subject from a holistic perspective — by examining both the hardware and the human components of security. Doing so has allowed him to make important contributions to real-world developments in the field of computer science throughout an impressive career that spans the public and private sectors, as well as academia.

Smith’s childhood in Pennsylvania, much of which he spent playing with ham radios and other fun electronic doodads, set the stage for a lifelong interest in technology. After four rugby and hash-filled years (“hash” here equals trail running for the worried D.A.R.E. graduates among us) at Princeton, from which he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Mathematics in 1987, Smith made his way back to his home state for his doctorate, which he earned from Carnegie Mellon in 1994. Although Smith reflects on his years in Pittsburgh and advises doctoral students to spend less time on a trail or a bike than he did and more in the office, his performance was impressive enough to secure a position at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he performed security-related work from 1994 to 1996.

In 1996, Smith moved back east to IBM’s Watson Research Center, located in Yorktown Heights, New York. There, he designed the security architecture for the IBM 4758 secure coprocessor, which under his leadership was the first coprocessor to earn an FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standard) 140-1 Level 4 security validation; essentially, if anyone tried to tamper with or compromise the hardware, the hardware would find out. Smith, who believed that the academic environment held unique promise for research that could change the world, began teaching at Dartmouth in 2000. He received tenure in 2006 and a promotion to the rank of full Professor in 2011.

Information security is of paramount importance in today’s computer-reliant world for an obvious reason — people, governments, and other organizations may have incentives to gain access to systems which seek to remain uncompromised. Potential targets range from your email account to power grids. In order to ensure that data remains private or that the lights don’t go out, it is necessary to understand how computer security systems may be undermined from a technical standpoint, as well as how human behavior relating to the design, maintenance, and usage of such technologies affects the ability of systems to defend themselves. By examining these two factors, Smith has produced an expansive body of research (an h-index of 43 and 6138 citations).

We can look at two articles written by Smith to get a sense of what this dual approach looks like in the scholarship. The first, titled “Circumvention of Security: Good Users Do Bad Things,” highlights the fact that computer users’ level of cooperation with security tools that have been put in place for their own benefit often limits how useful those tools really are. Smith and his coauthors, Jim Blythe of USC and Ross Koppel of Penn, explain how people often attempt to work around even simple security measures like passwords and time limits on usage sessions. This may be done in the interest of convenience, but it compromises information security in the process. One lesson to be learned: We should be designing security systems so that people can get their jobs done without having to write down and share passwords. The second article, “Magic Boxes and Boots: Security in Hardware,” emphasizes the role that well-designed physical computer architecture can play in forming a secure system. Smith goes on to describe in some detail the story behind the development of the aforementioned IBM 4758 coprocessor, and although things get a bit technical after the second page, it’s well worth a read.

Smith stays busy in the classroom as well, where in recent terms he has taught Operating Systems, Computer Architecture, Theory of Computation, and Compilers, the last of which he redesigned in order to better meet student needs. A one-time course called “Risks of the Internet of Things to Society,” offered in Summer 2015, led to a recently-published book. Additionally, he directs Dartmouth’s Institute for Security, Technology, and Society (ISTS), which pursues and facilitates research into information security.

Addendum: Here’s a video of Professor Smith down in Concord discussing self-driving cars alongside Andrew Kun of UNH and Joe Cunningham of the NHTI. The whole presentation is interesting and worth a look, but Professor Smith introduces himself around the 4:50 mark:


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