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A graph-theoretical model of computer security: From file sharing to social engineering

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We describe a model of computer security that applies results from the statistical properties of graphs to human-computer systems. The model attempts to determine a safe threshold of interconnectivity in a human-computer system by ad hoc network analyses. The results can be applied to physical networks, social networks and networks of clues in a forensic analysis. Access control, intrusions and social engineering can also be discussed as graph- and information-theoretical relationships. Groups of users and shared objects, such as files or conversations, provide communication channels for the spread of both authorized and unauthorized information. We present numerical criteria for measuring the security of such systems and algorithms for finding the vulnerable points.
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A graph theoretical model of computer
From file sharing to social engineering
Mark Burgess1, Geoffrey Canright2, Kenth Engø-Monsen2
1Faculty of Engineering, Oslo University College, Norway
2Telenor Research, Fornebu, Oslo, Norway
26. May 2003
Abstract We describe a model of computer security that applies results from
the statistical properties of graphs to human-computer systems. The model at-
tempts to determine a safe threshold of interconnectivity in a human-computer
system by ad hoc network analyses. The results can be applied to physical net-
works, social networks and to networks of clues in a forensic analysis. Access con-
trol, intrusions and social engineering can also be discussed as graphical and infor-
mation theoretical relationships. Groups of users and shared objects, such as files
or conversations, provide communications channels for the spread of both autho-
rized and un-authorized information. We present numerical criteria for measuring
the security of such systems and algorithms for finding the vulnerable points.
Keywords: Social networks, access control, social engineering, forensic analysis.
1 Introduction
File access control is one of the less glamorous aspects of system security,
but it is the most basic defence in the containment of information. While a
technology like encryption has high-profile credibility for security, it is still
nothing more than ‘security through obscurity’ and its real effectiveness lies
in the management of access to its basic secrets (i.e. the encryption keys).
Security is a property of an entire system including explicit and covert chan-
nels. Unexpected routes such as social channels, are often used to circumvent
so-called strong security mechanisms. The file security problem is a generic
representation of communication flow around a system, and thus we return
to this basic problem to ask whether something more quantitative can be
said about it. The issue of social engineering has previously been rather
difficult to address.
Graph theoretical methods have long been used to discuss issues in
computer security[1–3]. Typically graphs have been used to discuss trust
2 Mark Burgess et al.
relationships and restricted information flows (privacy). To our knowledge,
no-one has considered graphical methods as a practical tool for performing
a partially automated analysis of real computer system security. Computer
systems can form relatively large graphs. The Internet is perhaps the largest
graph that has ever been studied, and much research has been directed at
analyzing the flow of information through it. Research shows that the In-
ternet[4] and the Web[5] (the latter viewed as a directed graph) each have a
power-law degree distribution. Such a distribution is characteristic[6–8] of a
self-organized network, such as a social network, rather than a purely tech-
nological one. Increasingly we see technology being deployed in a pattern
that mimics social networks, as humans bind together different technologies,
such as the Internet, the telephone system and verbal communication.
Social networks have may interesting features, but their most interesting
feature is that they do not always have a well defined centre, or point of
origin; this makes them highly robust to failure, and also extremely trans-
parent to the percolation of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ information[9]. A question
of particular interest to computer security is: can we identify likely points of
attack in a general network of associations, and use this information to build
analytical tools for securing human-computer systems? Users are related to
one another by various associations: file sharing, peer groups, friends, mes-
sage exchange, etc. Every such connection represents a potential information
flow. An analysis of these can be useful in several instances:
For finding the weakest points of a security infra-structure for preventa-
tive measures.
In forensic analysis of breaches, to trace the impact of radiated damage
at a particular point, or to trace back to the possible source.
There is scope for considerable research in this area. We begin with
somewhat modest intentions and try to answer the simplest questions in a
quantitative fashion, such as how does one use the properties of a graph
to make characterizations about a system that would be of interest in a
security context (see the plan in the next two paragraphs). How can we
estimate the probable risk associated with a system purely from a topolog-
ical viewpoint, using various models of exposure? We use the observation
that human-computer communication lies at the heart of security breaches.
We diverge from other discussions by further noting that communication
takes place over many channels, some of which are controlled and others
that are covert. A covert channel is a pathway for information that is not
intended for communicating information and is therefore not usually sub-
ject to security controls, i.e. a security leak. Thus, our discussion unifies
machine controllable security measures with measures for addressing social
engineering, which usually resist analysis.
The plan for this paper is as follows: we begin by describing the lay-
out of an organization, as a bipartite graph of file-like objects and users,
though we shall occasionally disregard the bipartite nature for simplicity.
We then define the meaning of collaborative groups, and find a shorthand
A graph theoretical model of computer security 3
notation for visualizing the potential damage that might be spread by virtue
of the connections within the organizational graph. In section 4, we consider
the groups of nodes as being independent—ignoring any overlaps between
them—but immerse them in a bath of possibly hostile information. Using
information theory, we find a condition for maximizing the robustness of
the system to outside exposure (i.e. risk of leaks or intrusions) and find that
some groups are exponentially more important than others to security.
In section 5, we admit the possibility of links between groups, and con-
sider percolation of data through the network. That is, we ask: is there a
critical level of interconnectivity, above which information can flow essen-
tially unchecked through the entire system? Finally, in section 6, we focus
on fully-connected systems and consider which nodes in a graph are the
most important (central) to the spread of information.
2 Associative bipartite graphs
The basic model one has is of a number of users, related by associations
that are mediated by human-computer resources. The graphs we discuss in
this paper represent a single organization. We do not draw any nodes for
outsiders; rather we shall view outsiders as a kind of reservoir of potential
danger in which our organization is immersed.
In the simplest case, we can imagine that users have access to a number
of files. Overlapping access to files allow information to be passed from user
to user: this is a channel for information flow. For example, consider a set
of Ffiles, shared by Uusers (fig. 1).
a b c d e
Fig. 1 Users (dark spots) are associated with one another through resources (light
spots) that they share access to. Each light spot contains fifiles or sub-channels
and defines a group i, through its association with uilinks to users. In computer
parlance, they form ‘groups’.
Here we see two kinds of object (a bipartite graph), connected by links
that represent associations. In between each object of one type must be
an object of the other type. Each association is a potential channel for
communication, either implicitly or explicitly. Dark spots represent different
users, and light spots represent the files that they have access to. A file, or set
4 Mark Burgess et al.
of files, connected to several users clearly forms a system group, in computer
parlance. In graph-theory parlance the group—since it includes all possible
user-file links—is simply a complete (bipartite) subgraph, or bipartite clique.
In Figure 2 we present another visual representation of the user/file
bipartite graph, in the form of Venn diagrams. Here the users are empha-
sized, and the files are suppressed; the ellipses themselves then show the
group structure. Leakage of information (eg damage) can occur between
any groups having overlap in the Venn-diagram picture.
Fig. 2 Some example bipartite graphs drawn in two forms. On the right hand side
of the diagram, the Venn diagrams acts as topographical contour lines, indicating
the relative connectivity of the nodes. This is a useful graphical shorthand: an
overlapping ellipse represents a potential leak out of the group
In reality, there are many levels of association between users that could
act as channels for communication:
Group work association (access).
Friends, family or other social association.
Physical location of users.
In a recent security incident at a University in Norway, a cracker gained
complete access to systems because all hosts had a common root password.
This is another common factor that binds ‘users’ at the host level, forming a
graph that looks like a giant central hub. In a post factum forensic investiga-
tion, all of these possible routes of association between possible perpetrators
of a crime are potentially important clues linking people together. Even in
an a priori analysis such generalized networks might be used to address the
likely targets of social engineering. In spite of the difference in principle of
the network connections, all of these channels can be reduced to effective
intermediary nodes, or meta-objects like files. For the initial discussion, at
least, we need not distinguish them.
Each user naturally has a number of file objects that are private. These
are represented by a single line from each user to a single object. Since
A graph theoretical model of computer security 5
all users have these, they can be taken for granted and removed from the
diagram in order to emphasize the role of more special hubs (see fig. 3).
Fig. 3 An example of the simplest level at which a graph may be reduced to a
skeleton form and how hot-spots are identified. This is essentially a renormaliza-
tion of the histogram, or ‘height above sea-level’ for the contour picture.
The resulting contour graph, formed by the Venn diagrams, is the first
indication of potential hot-spots in the local graph topology. Later we can
replace this with a better measure — the ‘centrality’ or ‘well-connectedness’
of each node in the graph.
Bipartite graphs have been examined before to provide a framework for
discussing security[10]. We take this idea a step further by treating the
presence of links probabilistically.
3 Graph shorthand notations
The complexity of the basic bipartite graph and the insight so easily revealed
from the Venn diagrams beg the question: is there a simpler representation
of the graphs that summarizes their structure and which highlights their
most important information channels?
An important clue is provided by the Venn diagrams; indeed these suffice
to reveal a convenient level of detail in simple cases. We begin by defining
the lowest level of detail required, using the following terms:
Definition 1 (Trivial group) An ellipse that encircles only a single user
node is a trivial group. It contains only one user.
Definition 2 (Elementary group) For each file node i, obtain the max-
imal group of users connected to the node and encircle these with a suitable
ellipse (as in fig. 3). An ellipse that contains only trivial groups, as sub-
groups, is an elementary group.
Our aim in simplifying a graph is to eliminate all detail within elementary
groups, but retain the structure of the links between them. This simplifica-
tion is motivated by our interest in damage control: since each group is a
complete subgraph, it is natural to assume that intra-group infection occurs
6 Mark Burgess et al.
on a shorter timescale than intergroup infection. Hence a natural coarsening
views the elementary group as a unit.
Definition 3 (Simplification rule) For each file node i, obtain the max-
imal group of users connected to the node and encircle these with a suitable
ellipse or other envelope, ignoring repeated ellipses (as in fig. 3). Draw a
super-node for each group, labelled by the total degree of group (the number
of users within it). For each overlapping ellipse, draw an unbroken line be-
tween the groups that are connected by an overlap. These are cases where
one or more users belongs to more than one group, i.e. there is a direct
association. For each ellipse that encapsulates more than one elementary
groups, draw a dashed line (see fig. 4).
Indirect (file)
Direct (user) .
Fig. 4 Solid lines in the short hand denote direct user connections, formed by
overlapping groups in the Venn diagram, i.e. users who belong to more than
one group directly. Dotted lines represent associations that are formed by the
envelopment of several subgroups by a parent group. This occurs when two groups
of users have access to one or more common files.
The simple examples in fig. 2 can thus be drawn as in fig. 5. Our aim
here is not to develop a one to one mapping of the graph, but to eliminate
detail. There is no unique prescription involved here, rather one is guided
by utility.
1 3
2 2
Fig. 5 Identification of elementary groups in example graphs of fig. 2
Further elimination of detail is also possible. For example, non-elementary
groups are simply complete subgraphs plus some extra links. Hence it may
be useful to view non-elementary groups as units. This kind of coarsening
gives, for the last example in fig. 5, a single circle with group degree 4.
As a further example, we can take the graph used in ref. [11]. Fig. 6
shows the graph from that reference. Fig. 7 shows the same graph after
eliminating the intermediate nodes. Finally, Figs. 8 and 9 show this graph
A graph theoretical model of computer security 7
1 2 3 4
Fig. 6 The example bipartite graph from ref. [11] serves as an example of the
shorthand procedure.
Fig. 7 A ‘one-mode’ projection of the graph in fig. 6, as given by ref. [11] is
formed by the elimination of the intermediary nodes. Note that bipartite cliques
in the original appear here also as cliques.
Fig. 8 The Venn diagram for the graph in fig. 6 shows simple and direct associ-
ations that resemble the one-mode projection, without details.
Fig. 9 The final compressed form of the graph in fig. 6 eliminates all detail but
retains the security pertinent facts about the graph.
in our notation (respectively, the Venn diagram and the elementary-group
The shorthand graphs (as in Fig. 9) may be useful in allowing one to
see more easily when a big group or a small group is likely to be infected
by bad information.
8 Mark Burgess et al.
4 Information content and group exposure
Intuition tells us that there ought to be a reasonable limit to the number
of collaborative groups on a system. If every user belongs to a number of
groups, then the number of possibilities for overlap quickly increases, which
suggests a loss of system boundaries. If an element of a group (a file or user)
becomes corrupted or infected, that influence will spread if boundaries are
lost. Clearly, we must quantify the importance of groups to security, and
try to elucidate the role of group size and number.
4.1 Informational entropy
The first step in our sequence of steps is to consider a number of isolated
groups that do not intercommunicate, but which are exposed to an external
bath of users (e.g. the Internet), of which certain fraction is hostile. We
then ask the question, how does the size of a group affect its vulnerability
to attack from this external bath of users?
The maximum number of possible groups Gmax , of any size, that one
could create on a system of Uusers is
Gmax = 2U1.(1)
That is, each group is defined by a binary choice (member or not) on each
of Uusers—but we do not count the group with no members. Groups that
do not fall into this basic set are aliases of one another. This number is still
There are clearly many ways of counting groups; we begin by considering
the problem of non-overlapping groups, i.e. only non-overlapping subgraphs
(partitions). Groups are thus (in this section) assumed to be isolated from
one another; but all are exposed to the (potentially hostile) environment.
Given these conditions, we then ask: Is there a way to decide how many
users should be in each group, given that we would like to minimize the
exposure to the system?
Let i= 1 . . . G, where Gis the number of groups defined on a system.
In the following, we will treat Gas fixed. Varying G, while maximizing
security, generally gives the uninteresting result that the number of groups
should be maximized, i.e., equal to the number of users—giving maximal
security, but no communication. This is analogous to the similar result in
ref. [12].
Let uibe the number of users encapsulated in group i, and fibe the
number of files in (accessible to) group i. We say that a link belongs to
group iif both its end nodes do. The total number of links in a group is
A graph theoretical model of computer security 9
(see fig. 1) and the probability that a given link is in group iis thus
i=1 Li
Now we can think of putting together a user/file system ’from scratch’,
by laying down links in some pattern. In the absence of any information
about the different groups (other than their total number G) we want to
treat all groups equally. For a large system, we can then lay down links
at random, knowing that the resulting distribution of links will be roughly
uniform. Hence we can (statistically) avoid large groups (and hence damage
spreading to a large number of users and files), simply by maximizing the
entropy (randomness) of the links.
The entropy of the links is
piln pi.(4)
With no constraints, maximizing the entropy leads to a flat distribution,
i.e. that all the pishould be equal in size, or
i.e. the total number of links per group should be approximately constant.
This clearly makes sense: if many users are involved, the way to minimize
spread of errors is to minimize their access to files. However, this simple
model does not distinguish between groups other than by size. Since there is
no intergroup communication, this is not an interesting result. To introduce
a measure of the security level of groups to outside penetration, we can
introduce a number ǫiwhich represents the exposure of the files and users
in group ito outside influences. ǫiis a property of group ithat is influenced
by security policy, and other vulnerability factors. That is, in our model,
the ǫicannot be varied: they are fixed parameters determined by ’outside’
We are thus now looking at a closed model for an open system. We label
each group iwith a positive value ǫithat is zero for no exposure to outside
contact, and that has some non-zero, positive value for increasing exposure.
The value can be measured arbitrarily and calibrated against a scale β, so
that βǫihas a convenient value, for each i. The average exposure of the
system is fixed by hǫi, but its overall importance is gauged by the scale β.
βmay thus be thought of as the ’degree of malice’ of the bath of outsiders.
We will again maximize entropy to minimize risk. Typically, the proper-
ties of the outside bath are not open to control by the system administrator,
who first makes the ǫias low as possible, and then varies the group size, as
given by the pi, at fixed β. This gives the average exposure:
10 Mark Burgess et al.
piǫi=hǫi= const.(6)
However, using a continuum approximation that is accurate for large G,
both βand hǫican be taken to be smoothly variable, and an equivalent
procedure is to fix the average exposure hǫi, then vary β. The result is the
invertible function β(hǫi), determined by the group sizes pi. We therefore
look for the distribution of piwith maximum entropy, i.e. the configuration
of minimal risk, that satisfies this exposure constraint, and the normaliza-
tion constraint Pipi= 1. We use the well-known Lagrange method on the
link-entropy Lagrangian:
piln piA(
piǫi− hǫi).(7)
Maximizing Lwith respect to pi, A, β , gives
Let us recall the context, and hence significance, of this result. We as-
sume noninteracting groups, with each group ihaving a (given) degree of
exposure ǫito damage from attack. We then minimize the average exposure
(where the average is taken over all groups) by maximizing the entropy of
the links. Minimizing the average exposure is of course the best security goal
one can hope for, given these constraints. Following this simple procedure
gives us the result [Eq. 8] that groups with high exposure to attack should
have exponentially fewer links than those with less exposure.
We can rephrase this result as follows:
Result 1 Groups that have a high exposure are exponentially more impor-
tant to security than other groups. Thus groups such as those that include
network services should be policed with maximum attention to detail.
Thus, on the basis of rather general arguments, in which we view the
many groups as noninteracting, we arrive at the interesting conclusion that
individual nodes with high exposure can have significantly higher impor-
tance to security than others. More specifically, equation (8) implies that
the relative size of two groups iand jshould be exponential in the quantity
β(ǫiǫj); thus if typical values of this latter quantity are large, there is
strong pressure to hold the more highly-exposed groups to a small size.
A graph theoretical model of computer security 11
This ’ideal-gas’ model of the set of groups presumably retains some rele-
vance when the interactions (communication) between groups is small, but
nonzero. In this limit, damage spreading between groups takes place (as does
energy transfer in a real gas), but the independent-groups approximation
may still be useful. In the next section, we go beyond the assumption that
intergroup interaction is weak, and view explicitly the spread of information
within the graph.
5 Percolation in the graph
The next step in our discussion is to add the possibility of overlap between
groups, by adding a number of channels that interconnect them. These
channels can be files, overlapping user groups, mobile-phone conversations,
friendships or any other form of association. The question then becomes:
how many channels can one add before the system becomes (essentially)
completely connected by the links? This is known as the percolation prob-
lem; and the onset, with increasing number of links, of (nearly) full connec-
tivity is known as the formation of a giant cluster in the graph.
In classical percolation studies the links are added at random. In this
section we will assume that the links are added so as to maintain a given
node degree distribution pk. That is, pkis the fraction of nodes having degree
Definition 4 (Degree of a node) In a non-directed graph, the number of
links connecting node ito all other nodes is called the degree kiof the node.
In the next subsection we will take a first look at percolation on graphs
by considering a regular, hierarchical structure. In the subsequent subsec-
tions, we will follow Ref. [11] in looking at “random graphs with node degree
distribution pk”. The phrase in quotes refers to a graph chosen at random
from an ensemble of graphs, all of whom have the given node degree distri-
bution. That is, the links are laid down at random, subject to the constraint
coming from the degree distribution.
5.1 Percolation in a hierarchy
One of the simplest types of graph is the hierarchical tree. Hierarchical
graphs are not a good model of user-file associations, but they are rep-
resentative of many organizational structures. A very regular hierarchical
graph in which each node has the same degree (number of neighbours) is
known as the Cayley tree. Studies of percolation phase transitions in the
Cayley model can give some insight into the computer security problem:
at the ’percolation threshold’ essentially all nodes are connected in a ’gi-
ant cluster’—meaning that damage can spread from one node to all others.
For link density (probability) below this threshold value, such wide damage
spreading cannot occur.
12 Mark Burgess et al.
The Cayley tree is a reasonable approximation to a random network
below its percolation point, since in the non-percolating network loops have
negligible probability [9]. Thus we can use this model to estimate the thresh-
old probability itself.
The Cayley tree is a loopless graph in which every node has zneigh-
bours. The percolation model envisions an ideal ’full’ structure with all
edges present (in this case, the Cayley tree with z=zC T edges for each
node), and then fills those edges with real links, independently with proba-
bility p. Since zCT is the ideal number of links to neighbours, the condition
[9] for a path to exist from a distant region to a given node is that at least
one of the node’s (zC T 1) links in the tree is connected; i.e. the critical
probability for connectivity pcis defined through
(zCT 1)pc1.(9)
p > pc,(10)
the network is completely traversable from any node or, in a security con-
text, any node has access to the rest of the nodes by some route. Although
this model is quite simplistic, it offers a rough guideline for avoiding perco-
lation in real computer systems.
To apply this to a more general network, we need to view the general
graph as partial filling of a Cayley tree. Assuming the graph is large, then
some nodes will have completely filled all the links adjacent to them in the
ideal tree. The coordination number of these nodes is then zCT . These nodes
will also have the maximum degree (which we call Kmax) in the graph. That
is, we take
zCT =Kmax .(11)
The critical probability of a link leading to a giant cluster is then (in this
Kmax 1.(12)
Now we must estimate the fraction pof filled links. Assuming (again)
that our real graph is a partial filling of a Cayley tree, pis then the fraction
of the links on the Cayley tree that are actually filled. For the bipartite case,
we have Ffiles and Uusers, and so the number of links in the real graph
is L=hzi
2(U+F). The Cayley tree has zCT
2(U+F) links. Hence pis the
ratio of these:
p=hzi/zCT .(13)
A graph theoretical model of computer security 13
(This also applies for the unipartite case.) The average neighbour number
hzimay be calculated from the real in the usual ways. For instance, if one
has the node degree distribution pk, then hzi=hki=Pkkpk.
The above assumptions give the following rough guide for limiting dam-
age spreading in a computer system.
Result 2 A risk threshold, in the Cayley tree approximation, is approached
when a system approaches this limit:
> pc=1
Kmax 1(14)
Kmax 1.(15)
That is (again), we equate a security risk threshold with the percola-
tion threshold. Below the percolation threshold, any damage affecting some
nodes will not be able to spread to the entire system; above this threshold,
it can. Result 15 gives us an approximation for the percolation threshold.
It is extremely simple and easy to calculate; but, being based on modeling
the graph as a hierarchical Cayley tree, it is likely to give wrong answers in
some cases.
5.2 Large random unipartite networks with arbitrary degree distributions
User-file and other security associations are not typically hierarchical; in-
stead they tend to follow more the pattern of a random graph, with nodes
of many different degrees. The degree kof a node is the number of edges
linking the node to neighbours. Random graphs, with arbitrary node de-
gree distributions pkhave been studied in ref. [11], using the method of
generating functionals. This method uses a continuum approximation, us-
ing derivatives to evaluate probabilities, and hence it is completely accurate
only in the continuum limit of very large number of nodes N. However it
can still be used to examine smaller graphs, such as those in a local area
We reproduce here a result from ref. [11] which give the condition for
the probable existence of a giant cluster for a unipartite random graph with
degree distribution pk. (For another derivation, see Ref. [13].) This result
holds in the limit N→ ∞. Hence in a later section we offer a correction to
this large-graph result for smaller graphs.
Result 3 The large-graph condition for the existence of a giant cluster (of
infinite size) is simply
k(k2) pk0.(16)
14 Mark Burgess et al.
This provides a simple test that can be applied to a human-computer sys-
tem, in order to estimate the possibility of complete failure via percolating
damage. If we only determine the pk, then we have an immediate machine-
testable criterion for the possibility of a systemwide security breach. The
condition is only slightly more complicated than the simple Cayley tree
approximation; but (as we will see below) it tends to give more realistic
5.3 Large random bipartite networks with arbitrary degree distributions
There is a potential pitfall associated with using Result 3 above, namely that
isolated nodes (those of degree zero) are ignored. This is of course entirely
appropriate if one is only concerned about percolation; but this could give a
misleading impression of danger to a security administrator in the case that
most of the organization shares nothing at all. In the unipartite or one-mode
approximation, one-member groups with no shared files become isolated
nodes; and these nodes (which are quite real to the security administrator)
are not counted at all in eqn. (16). Consider for example fig. 10.
Fig. 10 A system with many isolated groups, in the unipartite representation. Is
this system percolating or not? Clearly it spans a path across the diameter (order
N) of the network, but this is not sufficient to permeate an entire organization.
Here we have p0= 28/36, p1= 2/36, p2= 4/36, and p3= 2/36. Result 3 tells us
that the graph is percolating. Result 5 corrects this error.
It seems clear from this figure that system-wide infection is very difficult
to achieve: the large number of isolated users will prevent this. However eqn.
(16) ignores these users, only then considering the connected backbone—
and so it tells us that this system is strongly percolating. This point is
brought home even more strongly by considering fig. 11.
A graph theoretical model of computer security 15
Fig. 11 The system of fig. 10, but with many more connections added. We have
p0= 6/36, p1= 24/36, p2= 4/36, and p3= 2/36. Now we find the paradoxical re-
sult that adding these connections makes the system non-percolating according
to the unipartite criterion eqn. (16). Result 5 concurs.
Here we have added a fairly large number of connections. The result
is that eqn. (16) now reports that the system is non-percolating. In other
words, adding connections has caused an apparent transition from a perco-
lating to a non-percolating state! We can avoid such problems by treating
the graph in a bipartite representation. The fact which helps here is that
there are no isolated nodes in this representation: files without users, and
users without files, do not occur, or at least are so rare as to be no interest
to security.
Random bipartite graphs are also discussed in [11] and a corresponding
expression is derived for giant clusters. Here we can let pkbe the fraction
of users with degree k(ie, having access to kfiles), and qkbe the fraction
of files to which kusers have access. Then, from Ref. [11]:
Result 4 The large-graph condition for the appearance of a giant bipartite
cluster is:
jk(jk jk)pjqk>0.(17)
This result is still relatively simple, and provides a useful guideline for avoid-
ing the possibility of systemwide damage. That is, both distributions pjand
qkcan be controlled by policy. Thus, one can seek to prevent even the pos-
sibility of systemwide infection, by not satisfying the inequality in (17), and
so holding the system below its percolation threshold.
The left hand side of (17) can be viewed as a weighted scalar product of
the two vectors of degree distributions:
qTW p =pTW q > 0,(18)
16 Mark Burgess et al.
with Wjk =jk(jk jk) forming a symmetric, graph-independent weight-
ing matrix. W is infinite, but only a part of it is projected out by the
non-zero degree vectors. In practice, it is sufficient to consider W up to a
finite size, namely Kmax. For illustration we give Wtruncated at k= 5:
2 0 6 16 30
3 6 27 60 105
4 16 60 128 220
5 30 105 220 375
Since Wis fixed, the security administrator seeks to vary the vectors pjand
qkso as to hold the weighted scalar product in eqn. (17) below zero, and so
avoid percolation.
5.4 Application of the large-graph result for bipartite networks
Note that W22 = 0. Thus, for the case p2=q2= 1 (i.e. all other probabilities
are zero), the expression (18) tells us immediately that any random graph
with this degree distribution is on the threshold of percolation. We can
easily find a pair of explicitly non-random graphs also having this simple
degree distribution.
Fig. 12 A highly regular group structure which is non-percolating—but which
will be pronounced ’on threshold’ by eqn. (17).
The structures shown in figs. 12 and 13 both satisfy p2=q2= 1, so that
the left hand side of eqn. (17) is exactly zero. One is clearly non-percolating,
while the other is percolating. The typical random graph with p2=q2= 1
will in some sense lie ’in between’ these two structures—hence ’between’
percolating and non-percolating.
Now let us consider less regular structures, and seek a criterion for non-
percolation. We assume that users will have many files. Hence the vector
pkwill tend to have weight out to large k, and it may not be practical
to try to truncate this distribution severely. Let us simply suppose that
one can impose an upper limit on the number of files any user can have:
kuser kuser
max K.
Now we can set up a sufficient condition for avoiding a giant cluster.
We forbid any file to have access by more than two users. That is, qk= 0
for k > 2. This is a rather extreme constraint—it means that no group
A graph theoretical model of computer security 17
Fig. 13 Two equivalent highly regular group structures with the same ’on-
threshold’ degree distribution as in fig. 12 are the infinite chain and the ring.
has more than two members. We use this constraint here to illustrate the
possible application of eqn. (17), as it is easy to obtain a sufficient condi-
tion for this case. We now demand that the first Kcomponents of W q be
negative—this is sufficient (but not necessary) to force the product pTW q
to be negative.
There are now only two nonzero q’s, namely q1and q2. Since they are
probabilities (or fractions) they sum to one. Hence, given the above trunca-
tions on pjand qk, we can obtain a sufficient condition for operation below
the percolation threshold as
This result seems promising; but it has a drawback which we now reveal.
By letting q1be different from zero, we have included files with only one
user. As noted in a previous section, such files contribute nothing to the
connectedness of the network, and so are essentially irrelevant to security
concerns. In fact, q1is simply the fraction of private files; and it is clear
from our solution that, if we want our users to have many files (large K),
then nearly all of them must be private (q11 as K→ ∞). This in turn
means that the group structure is rather trivial: there are a very few groups
with two members (those files contributing to q2), and the rest of the groups
are one-member groups with private files.
We can find other solutions by explicitly setting q1= 0: that is, we do not
count the private files. If we retain the truncation rules above (kmax =K
for users, and kmax = 2 for files), then we get q2= 1 immediately. This
18 Mark Burgess et al.
allows us to collapse the sum in eqn. (17) to 2 Pkk(k2) pk. This gives the
same threshold criterion as that for a unipartite graph [eqn. (16)]. However
this is only to be expected, since with q2= 1, the bipartite structure is
trivial: it amounts to taking a unipartite graph (of users) and placing a file
on each inter-user link. The group structure is equally trivial: every group
is elementary and has two users, and all connections between groups are
mediated by shared users. This situation also seems ill-suited to practical
computer systems operation.
Finally, we hold q1= 0 but allow both q2and q3to be nonzero. We then
find that our simple strategy of forcing the first Kcomponents of W q to
be zero is impossible. And of course allowing even larger degree for the files
does not help. Hence, for this, most practical, case, some more sophisticated
strategy must be found in order to usefully exploit the result (17).
5.5 Small-graph corrections
The problem with Results 3 and 4 is that they are derived under the as-
sumption that the number of nodes is diverging. For a small graph with
Nnodes (either unipartite or bipartite), the criterion for a giant cluster
becomes inaccurate. Clusters do not grow to infinity, they can only grow to
size Nat the most, hence we must be more precise and use a finite scale
rather than infinity as a reference point.
A more precise percolation criterion states that, at percolation, the aver-
age size of clusters is of the same order of magnitude as the number of nodes.
However for a small graph the size of a giant cluster and of below-threshold
clusters [Nand log(N), respectively] are not that different[14].
For a unipartite graph we can state [13] the criterion for percolation
more precisely as:
Pkk(k2) pk
(Result 3 then follows by requiring the denominator to go to zero, so forcing
the quantity in Eq. 21 to diverge.) Then [13] a finite-graph criterion for the
percolation threshold can be taken to be as follows.
Result 5 The small-graph condition for widespread percolation in a uni-
partite graph of order Nis:
k(k2) pk>log(N).(22)
This can be understood as follows. If a graph contains a giant component,
it is of order N, and the size of the next largest component is typically
O(log N); thus, according to the theory of random graphs the margin for
error in estimating a giant component is of order ±log N. Eq. 21, giving the
criterion for a cluster that is much greater than unity, implies that the right
A graph theoretical model of computer security 19
hand side of Eq. 22 is greater than zero. To this we now add the magnitude
(log(N)) of the uncertainty, in order to reduce the likelihood of an incorrect
Similarly, for the bipartite graph, one has
Result 6 The small-graph condition for widespread percolation in a bipar-
tite graph of order Nis:
jk(jk jk)pjpk>log(N/2).(23)
These expressions are not much more complex than the large-graph cri-
teria. Moreover, they remain true in the limit of large N. Hence we expect
these small-graph criteria to be more reliable than the large-graph criteria
for testing percolation in small systems. This expectation is borne out in
the examples below. In particular, we find that, since the average coordina-
tion number hkienters into the small-graph percolation criteria, the earlier
problem of ignoring isolated nodes in the unipartite case is now largely
Thus we expect that Results 5 and 6 should give a more accurate guide
to the system administrator who seeks to prevent the spreading of harm-
ful information, by preventing the system from forming a single connected
cluster (ie, from percolating).
5.6 Examples
We have obtained several distinct criteria for finding the limits at which
graphs start to percolate. These criteria are based on statistical, rather
than exact, properties of the graph to be tested. They thus have the ad-
vantage of being applicable even in the case of partial information about
a graph; and the disadvantage that they are approximate. The principal
approximation in all of them stems from the assumption that graphs with
a given pkdistribution are typical of a random ensemble of such graphs.
Other approximations are also present (the CT assumptions; and/or the
assumption of large N).
For small, fixed graphs there is sometimes no problem in exploring the
whole graph structure and then using an exact result. How then do the
above limits compare with more simplistic (but nonstatistical) criteria for
graph percolation? For example, one could—naively—simply compare the
number of links in a graph to the minimum number required to connect all
of the nodes:
L > N 1.(24)
This is a necessary but not sufficient criterion for percolation; hence, when
it errs, it will give false positives. This condition holds as an equality for an
open chain, and also for the ’star’ or ’hub’ topology.
20 Mark Burgess et al.
Perhaps the most precise small-graph criterion for percolation comes
from asking how many pairs of nodes, out of all possible pairs, can reach one
another in a finite number of hops. We thus define the ratio RCof connected
pairs of nodes to the total number of pairs that could be connected:
2N(N1) = 1.(25)
This is simply the criterion that the graph be connected.
If we wish to simplify this rule for ease of calculation, we can take ni
Li+ 1, where Liis the number of links in cluster i. Then, if Lis the total
number of links in the graph, criterion (25) becomes
RL=L(L+ 1)
N(N1) >1.(26)
This latter form is in fact the same as (24). Thus we are left with one
’naive’ small-graph test which is very simple, and one ’exact’ criterion which
requires a little more work to compute.
Fig. 14 The same nodes as figs. 10 and 11, but now with almost complete con-
nectivity. p0= 0, p1= 13/36, p2= 12/36, p3= 6/36, p4= 4/36, p5= 1/36.
We now apply the various tests–both the statistical tests, and those
based on exact knowledge of the graph–to several of the graphs shown in
this paper. Table 1 summarizes the results. (The bipartite criterion (17) is
not included in the table, as it cannot be used with all the examples.) It
should be noted that none of the criteria are flawless in their estimation
of percolation, except for the exact count of pairs. One positive aspect of
the errors with the approximate tests is that they are all false positives–ie,
they warn of percolation even though the graph is not fully percolating.
False positives are presumably more tolerable for security concerns than
false negatives.
A graph theoretical model of computer security 21
Fig. 15 The system of fig. 11, but with high densities of local nodes added
that artificially increase the link density without improving global connectivity
significantly. This type of graph fools most of the criteria.
We also (last column) rate the example graphs according to how many
of the criteria are correct for each graph. Here we see that it is possible to
find link configurations that fool all of the approximate tests into signalling
percolation where, in fact, there is none. That is, Figs. 14 and 15 give a lot
of false positives.
Let us try to summarize the properties of these various percolation tests.
First, it seems from our limited sample that the various (nonexact) tests
are roughly comparable in their ability to detect percolation. Also, they all
need roughly the same information–the node degree distribution pk–except
for Eqn. (24). Hence (24) may be useful as a very inexpensive first diagnos-
tic, to be followed up by others in case of a positive result. The statistical
tests we have examined are useful when ony partial information about a
graph is available. One can even use partial information to estimate the pa-
rameters in (24), as well as to determine (based on the test) whether further
information is desirable. Of the statistical tests, the Eqn. (16) appears to
be the least reliable.
The exact test (25) is easy to compute if one has the entire graph: it
can be obtained using a depth-first search, requiring time of O(N+L)—the
same amount of time as is needed to obtain the graph. Also, it gives a good
measure of closeness to the threshold for nonpercolating graphs (useful, for
example, in the case of figure 14).
Finally we offer more detailed comments.
1. Note that, for fig. 10, the large (unipartite) graph criterion in eqn. (16)
claims that the graph has a giant cluster, which is quite misleading. The
bipartite test (17) cannot be relevant here, since we must then view the
isolated nodes as either users without files, or files without users–either
event being improbable for a user/file system. However, the small graph
criterion in eqn. (22) gives the correct answer.
2. In fig. 11, we are still able to fool the large graph criterion, in the sense
that (as noted earlier) the large graph criterion in eqn. (16) claims that
22 Mark Burgess et al.
Fig. Perc. Eqn. 15 Eqn. 16 Eqn. 22 Eqn. 24 Eqn. 25 Score
6 yes 2.33 0.83 1.87 0 6.42 2.71 16 14 1 = 1 5/5
10 no 0.44 1.5 0.11 0 0.31 3.58 8 35 0.04 = 1 4/5
11 no 1.06 1.50.50 0.61 3.58 19 35 0.06 = 1 5/5
14 no 2.11 1.25 1.44 0 5.90 3.58 38 35 0.67 = 1 1/5
15 no 2.17 1.25 2.61 0 7.31 3.58 39 35 0.095 = 1 1/5
Hub yes 1.94 1.03 31.11 0 34.89 3.58 35 35 1 = 1 5/5
Score - 4/6 3/6 4/6 4/6 6/6 -
Table 1 Table summarizing the correctness of the tests for percolation through
small graphs and their reliability scores. The final entry ‘Hub’ is for comparison
and refers to a graph of equal size to figures 10-15 in which a single node connects
all the others by a single link in hub configuration.
fig. 11 is safer than fig. 10—even though the former is clearly more
connected. Again the small-graph test gives us the right answer.
3. In fig. 14, we find the same graph, now almost completely connected. In
fact, a single link suffices to make the graph connected. For this highly
connected case, all the tests except the exact one are fooled–perhaps a
case of acceptable false positives. Fig. 15–which is much farther from
percolation—also fools all the tests. And it is plausible that many real
user/file systems resemble fig. 15, which thus represents perhaps the
most strong argument for seeking complete information and using the
exact test for percolation.
4. It appears that none of our tests give false negatives. Further evidence
comes from testing all of the above percolation criteria using Fig. 1. Here
all the tests report percolation—again, no false negatives.
5. We note again that criterion (16) can be misleading whenever there are
many isolated users. For example, consider adding Ni1 isolated users
(but with files) to fig. 3b (so that the number of isolated users is Ni).
The unipartite criterion will ignore these, and report that the graph is
percolating, for any Ni. The bipartite criterion (17) gives a completely
different answer: it gives a non-percolating structure for any physical Ni
(i.e. for any Ni0). The unipartite small-graph criterion—expected to
be more accurate than (16)—gives, for Ni= 1 (the case in the figure),
5.7>2.7—the graph is identified as percolating.
6. Finally we can consider applying eqn. (16) to shorthand graphs, as they
are considerably more compact than the full microscopic graph. For the
shorthand graph one can treat elementary groups as nodes, and dashed
and solid lines as links. For large systems it may be useful to work with
such graphs—since the groups themselves may be defined for practi-
cal (collaborative) reasons and so cannot be altered—but connections
between the groups can be. Thus it may be useful to study the percola-
tion approximation for such shorthand graphs. However, the shorthand
graphs for the above figures are too small for such an exercise to be
A graph theoretical model of computer security 23
6 Node centrality and the spread of information
In the foregoing sections, we have considered groups of users as being ei-
ther unconnected, or else only weakly bound, below or near the percolation
threshold. Although there may be circumstances in which this situation is
realistic, there will be others in which it is not: collaborative needs, as well
as social habits, often push the network towards full connectivity. In this
case, one infected node could infect all the others. (As noted in Section
2, an example of this occurred recently at a Norwegian University, where
the practice of using a single administrator password on all hosts, allowed
a keyboard sniffer to open a pathway that led to all machines, through
this common binding. There was effectively a giant hub connection between
every host, with a single node that was highly exposed at the centre.)
In this section, we consider the connected components of networks and
propose criteria for deciding which nodes are most likely to infect many
other nodes, if they are compromised. We do this by examining the relative
connectivity of the graph along multiple pathways.
What are the best connected nodes in a graph? These are certainly nodes
that an attacker would like to identify, since they would lead to the greatest
possible access, or spread of damage. Similarly, the security auditor would
like to identify them and secure them, as far as possible. From the standpoint
of security, then, important nodes in a network (files, users, or groups in the
shorthand graph) are those that are ’well-connected’. Therefore we seek a
precise working definition of ’well-connected’, in order to use the idea as a
tool for pin-pointing nodes of high security risk.
A simple starting definition of well-connected could be ’of high degree’:
that is, count the neighbours. We want however to embellish this simple
definition in a way that looks beyond just nearest neighbours. To do this.
we borrow an old idea from both common folklore and social network the-
ory[15]: an important person is not just well endowed with connections, but
is well endowed with connections to important persons.
The motivation for this definition is clear from the example in figure 16.
It is clear from this figure that a definition of ’well-connected’ that is relevant
to the diffusion of information (harmful or otherwise) must look beyond
first neighbours. In fact, we believe that the circular definition given above
(important nodes have many important neighbours) is the best starting
point for research on damage diffusion on networks.
Now we make this verbal (circular) definition precise. Let videnote a
vector for the importance ranking, or connectedness, of each node i. Then,
the importance of node iis proportional to the sum of the importances of
all of i’s nearest neighbours:
j=neighbours of i
24 Mark Burgess et al.
Fig. 16 Nodes Aand Bare both connected by five links to the rest of the graph,
but node Bis clearly more important to security because its neighbours are also
well connected.
This may be more compactly written as
vi= (const) ×X
Aij vj,(28)
where Ais the adjacency matrix, whose entries Aij are 1 if iis a neighbour
of j, and 0 otherwise. We can rewrite eqn. (28) as
Now one sees that the importance vector is actually an eigenvector of the
adjacency matrix A. If Ais an N×Nmatrix, it has Neigenvectors (one
for each node in the network), and correspondingly many eigenvalues. The
eigenvalue of interest is the principal eigenvector, i.e. that with highest
eigenvalue, since this is the only one that results from summing all of the
possible pathways with a positive sign. The components of the principal
eigenvector rank how self-consistently ‘central’ a node is in the graph. Note
that only ratios vi/vjof the components are meaningfully determined. This
is because the lengths viviof the eigenvectors are not determined by the
eigenvector equation.
The highest valued component is the most central, i.e. is the eigencen-
tre of the graph. This form of well-connectedness is termed ’eigenvector
centrality’ [15] in the field of social network analysis, where several other
definitions of centrality exist. For the remainder of the paper, we use the
terms ‘centrality’ and ’eigenvector centrality’ interchangeably.
We believe that nodes with high eigenvector centrality play a corre-
spondingly important role in the diffusion of information on a network.
However, we know of only few previous studies (see ref. [16]) which test this
idea quantitatively. We propose that this measure of centrality should be
adopted as a diagnostic instrument for identifying the best connected nodes
in networks of users and files.
A graph theoretical model of computer security 25
To illustrate our idea we calculate the centrality for the nodes in some
of the figures. In fig. 1, simple neighbour counting suggests that the file ’b’
is most well-connected. However the node with highest centrality is actually
user 5 (by a small margin of about 1%). After the fact, one can see reasons
for this ranking by studying the network. The point, however, is already
clear from this simple example: the rankings of connectedness can change
in non-trivial ways if one moves from simple degree counting to the self-
consistent definition of centrality. The centrality component-values for fig.
1 are ranked as follows:
5b>c = d 3 = 4
>e>2>6 = 7 a>1.(30)
This ranking could be quite useful for a system administrator concerned
with security: it allows the direct comparison of security of files and users
on a common footing.
For large graphs, visual inspection fails to give sufficient insight, while
the calculation of the centrality is trivial. Graphs tend to be sparse as they
grow large, which makes diagonalization of the adjacency matrix quick and
easy. For fig. 6, we find
1>2>> B = D >G>F>4
>A = C = E >3>I>J = K >H.(31)
Again we see results that are not so intuitive. File 4 is ranked significantly
lower than file 2, even though it has the same degree. Our intuition is not
good for comparing the files to the users in this bipartite graph; nor does
it help much in comparing the users to one another, as they all have degree
one or two. The point, once again, is that it is an effect that goes beyond
nearest neighbours that matters. Computing the centrality for fig. 7, the
one-mode version of fig. 6, gives
B = D >G>F>A = C
= E >I>J = K >H.(32)
Note that the inter-user rankings have not changed. We conjecture that this
is a general property of the centrality under the one-mode projection, con-
tingent on weighting the effective inter-user links in the projection with the
number of files they represent. Whether or not this conjecture is rigorously
true, the projected graph may be useful in some circumstances, when it is
inconvenient to track the population of files.
We note also that it is instructive to compare the ranking in eqn. (32)
with the Venn diagram in fig. 8. We suggest that the Venn diagram may be
the most transparent pictorial rendition of connectedness (as measured by
eigenvector centrality) that we have examined here; i.e. the Venn diagram
most clearly suggests the ranking found by eigenvalue centrality in eqn.
26 Mark Burgess et al.
Next we look at the shorthand graph (Fig. 9) and choose to retain the
information on the number of links (which can be greater than one in the
shorthand graph) in the shorthand Amatrix. The entries now become non-
negative integers[16]. With this choice, we obtain these results: the central
node has highest centrality (0.665), followed by the leftmost node (0.5), and
finally by the two rightmost nodes (0.4). The importance of the central node
is obvious, while the relative importance of the right and left sides is less
so. Of course, larger shorthand graphs will still confound intuition, so the
analysis may also be a useful tool in analyzing security hot-spots at the
shorthand, group level.
The above examples illustrate some of the properties of eigenvector cen-
trality on small graphs. Now we wish to consider the application of the same
concept to larger graphs. Here there is a crucial difference from the percola-
tion tests considered in the previous section. That is, testing for percolation
simply gives a single answer: Yes, No, or somewhere in between. However
a calculation of node centrality gives a score or index for every node on
the network. This is a large amount of information for a large graph; the
challenge is then to render this information in useful form.
Here we present an approach to meeting this challenge; for details see
[17]. When a node has high eigenvector centrality (EVC), it and its neigh-
bourhood have high connectivity. Thus in an important sense EVC scores
represent neighbourhoods as much as individual nodes. We then want to use
these scores to define clusterings of nodes, with as little arbitrariness as pos-
sible. (Note that these clusterings are not the same as user groups–although
groups are unlikely to be split up by our clustering approach.)
To do this, we define as Centres those nodes whose EVC is higher than
any of their neighbours’ scores. Clearly these Centres are important in the
flow of information on the network. We also associate a Region (subset
of nodes) with each Centre. These Regions are the clusters that we seek.
We find (see [17]) that more than one rule may be reasonably defined to
assign nodes to Regions; the results differ in detail, but not qualitatively.
One simple rule is to use distance (in hops) as the criterion: a node belongs
to a given Centre (ie, to its Region) if it is closest (in number of hops) to
that Centre. With this rule, some nodes will belong to multiple regions, as
they are equidistant from two or more Centres. This set of nodes defines
the Border set.
The picture we get then is of one or several regions of the graph which
are well-connected clusters–as signalled by their including a local maximum
of the EVC. The Border then defines the boundaries between these regions.
This procedure thus offers a way of coarse-graining a large graph. This
procedure is distinct from that used to obtain the shorthand graph; the two
types of coarse-graining may be used separately, or in combination.
To illustrate these ideas we present data from a large graph, namely,
the Gnutella peer-to-peer file-sharing network, viewed in a snapshot taken
November 13, 2001 [18]. In this snapshot the graph has two disconnected
pieces—one with 992 nodes, and one with three nodes. We ignore the small
A graph theoretical model of computer security 27
piece (the graph, viewed as a whole, is 99.4% percolating according to Eq.
(25)), and analyze the large one. Here we find that the Gnutella graph is
very well-connected. There are only two Centres, hence only two natural
clusters. These regions are roughly the same size (about 200 nodes each).
This means, in turn, that there are many nodes (over 550!) in the Border.
In figure 17 we present a visualization of this graph, using Centres,
Regions, and the Border as a way of organizing the placement of the nodes
using our Archipelago tool[19].
Fig. 17 A top level, simplified representation of Gnutella peer to peer associa-
tions, organized around the largest centrality maxima. The graphs consists of two
fragments, one with 992 nodes and one of merely 3 nodes and organizes the graph
into Regions. The upper connected fragment shows two regions connected by a
ring of bridge nodes.
Both the figure and the numerical results support our description of
this graph as well-connected: it has only a small number of Regions, and
there are many connections (both Border nodes, and links) between the
Regions. We find these qualitative conclusions to hold for other Gnutella
graphs that we have examined. Our criteria for a well-connected graph are
consonant with another one, namely, that the graph has a power-law node
degree distribution [9]. Power-law graphs are known to be well-connected
in the sense that they remain connected even after the random removal of
28 Mark Burgess et al.
a significant fraction of the nodes. And in fact the (self-organized) Gnutella
graph shown in fig. 17 has a power-law node degree distribution.
We believe that poorly-connected (but still percolating) graphs will be
revealed, by our clustering approach, to have relatively many Centres and
hence Regions, with relatively few nodes and links connecting these Regions.
Thus, we believe that the calculation of eigenvector centrality, followed by
the simple clustering analysis described here (and in more detail in [17]), can
give highly useful information about how well connected a graph is, which
regions naturally lie together (and hence allow rapid spread of damaging
information), and where are the boundaries between such easily-infected
regions. All of this information should be of utility in analyzing a network
from the point of view of security.
7 Conclusions
We have constructed a graphical representation of security and vulnera-
bility within a human-computer community, using the idea of association
and connectedness. We have found a number of analytical tests that can
be applied to such a representation in order to measure its security, and
find the pivotal points of the network, including those that are far from
obvious. These tests determine approximately when a threshold of free flow
of information is reached, and localize the important nodes that underpin
such flows.
We take care to note that the measurements we cite here depend crucially
on where one chooses to place the boundaries of one’s network analysis.
The methods will naturally work best, when no artificial limits are placed
on communication, e.g. by restricting to a local area network if there is
frequent communication with the world beyond its gateway. On the other
hand, if communication is dominated by local activity (e.g. by the presence
of a firewall) then the analysis can be successfully applied to a smaller vessel.
A number of different approaches were considered in this paper, all of
which can now be combined into a single model. The results of section 4 are
equivalent to adding an appropriate number of additional end nodes (de-
gree one) as satellites to a hub at every node where an external exposure is
non-zero. This internalizes the external bath and weights the node’s relative
connectivity and acts as an effective embedding into a danger bath. This
alters the centrality appropriately and also adds more end nodes for percola-
tion routes. Thus we can combine the information theoretical considerations
with the graphical ones entirely within a single representation.
At the start of this paper, we posed some basic questions that we can
now answer.
1. Is there an optimal number of file and user groups and sizes? Here
the answer is negative. There is actually an answer which optimizes
security—namely, let G=N: all groups are one-user groups, completely
isolated from one another. This answer is however useless, as it ignores
A graph theoretical model of computer security 29
all the reasons for having connectivity among users. Hence we reject
this ”maximum-security, minimum-communication” optimum. Then it
is not the number of collaborations that counts, but rather how much
they overlap and how exposed they are. The number of files and users in
a group can increase its exposure to attack or leakage, but that does not
follow automatically. Risk can always be spread. The total number of
points of contact is the criterion for risk, as intuition suggests. Informa-
tion theory tells us, in addition, that nodes that are exposed to potential
danger are exponentially more important, and therefore require either
more supervision, or should have exponentially fewer contact points.
2. How do we identify weak spots? Eigenvalue centrality is the most reveal-
ing way of finding a system’s vulnerable points. In order to find the true
eigencentre of a system, one must be careful to include every kind of
association between users, i.e. every channel of communication, in order
to find the true centre.
3. How does one determine when system security is in danger of breaking
down? We have provided two simple tests that can be applied to graph-
ical representations (results 5 and 6). These tests reveal what the eye
cannot necessarily see in a complex system, namely when its level of
random connectivity is so great that information can percolate to al-
most any user by some route. These tests can easily be calculated. The
appearance or existence of a giant cluster is not related to the number
of groups, but rather to how they are interconnected.
An attacker could easily perform the same analyses as a security admin-
istrator and, with only a superficial knowledge of the system, still manage
to find the weak points. An attacker might choose to attack a node that is
close to a central hub, since this attracts less attention but has a high prob-
ability of total penetration, so knowing where these points are allows one to
implement a suitable protection policy. It is clear that the degree of danger
is a policy dependent issue: the level of acceptable risk is different for each
organization. What we have found here is a way of comparing strategies,
that would allow us to minimize the relative risk, regardless of policy. This
could be used in a game-theoretical analysis as suggested in ref. [20]. The
measurement scales we have obtained can easily be programmed into an
analysis tool that administrators and security experts can use as a problem
solving ‘spreadsheet’ for security. We are constructing such a graphical tool
that administrators can use to make informed decisions[19].
There are many avenues for future research here. We have ignored the
role of administrative cost in maintenance of groups of different size. If
groups change quickly the likelihood of errors in membership increases. This
can lead to the formation of ad hoc links in the graph that provide windows
of opportunity for the leakage of unauthorized information. Understanding
the percolation behaviour in large graphs is a major field of research; sev-
eral issues need to be understood here, but the main issue is how a graph
splits into different clustersIEEE Computer Society Press in real computer
systems. There are usually two mechanisms at work in social graphs: purely
30 Mark Burgess et al.
random noise and a ‘rich get richer’ accumulation of links at heavily con-
nected sites. Further ways of measuring centrality are also being developed
and might lead to new insights. We have ignored the directed nature of the
graph in this work, for the purpose of clarity; this is a detail that we do not
expect to affect our results except in minor details. We hope to return to
some of these issues in future work.
Acknowledgement: We are grateful to Jonathan Laventhol for first
getting us interested in the problem of groups and their number. GC and
KE were partially supported by the Future & Emerging Technologies unit
of the European Commission through Project BISON (IST-2001-38923).
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