By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Five U.S. technology companies, including top weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp and chip maker Intel, plan to team up to tackle "grand challenges" in cyberspace amid growing concerns about computer security.
The non-profit research consortium, to be known as the Cyber Security Research Alliance (CSRA), will also include Advanced Micro Devices, Honeywell International and EMC Corp's RSA Security division as founding members.
The consortium will coordinate industry research and work closely with government to develop "break-through technologies" to improve cybersecurity, said its president Lee Holcomb, a senior executive at Lockheed's information systems and global solutions division.
Initial prototypes could be developed within a year to 18 months, possibly addressing the security issues raised by the proliferation of so-called embedded devices, such as controllers in cars and the power grid, Holcomb told Reuters in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
"We're going to try to bring together the government, academia and industry to collectively lay out a road map for what are the critical problems and what are the technical solutions and approaches that may work," he said. "How do we make it real?"
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week highlighted the growing threat of cyber attacks, noting that hackers were already going after banks and were developing the ability to strike U.S. power grids and government systems.
An August cyber attack on Saudi Arabia's state oil company, Saudi Aramco, that crippled some 30,000 computers, was probably the most destructive attack ever directed against the private sector, he said. U.S. financial institutions have been under sustained attack in recent weeks by suspected Iranian hackers.
Ron Perez, director of security architecture at AMD, said the alliance grew out of an ad hoc group of industry executives that began meeting in late 2009.
"What's new here is the recognition that there are challenges out there that are bigger than any one company, any one university, or consortium of universities, and even bigger than what the government can do on their own," he said.
"To really address these problems, it's going to take a long-term, well thought-out collaboration process," Perez said. "And then we need to pick the low-hanging fruit and start delivering on some of those processes."
Holcomb said each of the five founding companies had paid $60,000 in membership dues, but 15 to 20 other companies had expressed interest in joining the non-profit alliance.
The group also plans to convene a public symposium early next year with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to connect researchers with officials from the private, academic and government sectors.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Richard Pullin)