Scientists use Virtual Ants to Sniff out Malware

Dennis Faas's picture

A new approach to computer security could see an army of "ants" summoned to rid the online world of worms, bugs and other pestilent e-vermin. Interestingly enough, these "virtual ants" will work as an important defense against most forms of malware, but it is the manner in which they operate that earn them their insect namesake.

In actuality, the virtual ants are computer programs designed to roam around a given network in search of anomalies. The idea to use the ant-like hierarchy came from a senior research scientist Glenn Fink, at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington.

The strength of this system is not in each individual ant, but in the "colony" as a combined unit. In other words, it's a computer system that works interdependently at all levels. "Ants aren't intelligent, but as a colony ants exert some very intelligent behavior," says Fink. (Source:

Ant-like Software in Search of Malware

Just as a real ant wanders around in search of food, the virtual ant searches for malware. Once the source the "food" is discovered, others ants are tipped off and will signal the rest of the large-scale network (or colony).

Like a true ant colony, the system answers to a hierarchy. The wandering ants report their findings to a host server that sits back and collects all of the incoming data. The server reports all of the information back to the highest form in the colony (humans), who in turn send out orders to the server, who tip off the wandering ants. (Source:

Also like real ants, different "species" can be identified. Instead of categorizing the ants by their different types, including army, carpenter, or fire, the virtual ants differ based on the tasks they perform (checking for network traffic, CPU usage, etc.). (Source:

Software still in Testing Phase

While initial tests of the system have identified computer worms, the project remains a work in progress. In any event, one can only hope that if these "ants go marching on," some malware-peddling sites won't.

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