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University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships
University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships

Leveling the Playing Field for Organizational Defenders


Hacks. Phishing expeditions. Malware. Distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks. Whatever form it takes, cybercrime is a constant threat to organizations of every size, in every sector–from the smallest nonprofit to Fortune 100 corporations–and to society as a whole. That threat is growing at an unprecedented pace. In 2017, the global cost of cybercrime reached an estimated $600 billion, a number that’s expected to approach $2 trillion by 2019.

Until recently, corporate security teams have faced a formidable challenge. For decades, adversaries and malicious actors have used illegal means to scan the Internet for areas of weakness and pinpoint potential targets. What organizational defenders needed, and lacked, was a technology that offered this same level of insight and visibility, enabling them to spot vulnerable areas and secure their data and assets.

“You Can’t Protect What You Don’t Know”
Helping Cybersecurity Researchers Chart Unknown Territory and Map the Internet

In 2013, U-M Computer Science & Engineering Professor Alex Halderman teamed up with then-graduate student Zakir Durumeric to provide a straightforward way for scientists to isolate and quantify cybersecurity breaches, and determine whether Internet security was improving.

As Halderman notes, “What made our work possible was new, proprietary, high-throughput technologies that offered an alternative to shotgun Internet scanning. In the past, hackers had created their own high-performance scanners by linking large numbers of hijacked machines, creating what’s known as a botnet, to locate vulnerable systems. This new technology leveled the playing field by enabling us to make efficient connections among massive amounts of data and scan billions of devices in less than an hour.”

In the Fall of 2015, the team unveiled ZMap a suite of free, open-source security tools that could generate real-time data about every server, host and domain connected to the Internet. With ZMap, scientists had a searchable map of the Internet, and corporate cybersecurity professionals had a powerful new tool that made it possible to proactively identify weak infrastructure, spot potential phishing attacks, prevent brand impersonation, and defend against potential threats.

The Launch of Censys, a Searchable Map of the Internet

In late 2016, serial software startup entrepreneur Brian Kelly approached U-M Innovation Partnerships looking for a new opportunity and was told of ZMap, which, by 2017, had 5,000 registered users, many of them businesses that were using the service to defend their networks. Later that same year, Halderman, Durumeric, and Kelly, along with graduate student David Adrian who had been working on ZMap since 2013, approached Innovation Partnerships and began the process of launching a startup. “We’d gotten to a point,” says Halderman, “where we had dedicated users, but no way to provide them with customer support. We needed to add infrastructure, and the the best way to do that was to launch a company to take this idea and make it truly impactful.”

Within a year, Censys, the company that they founded, had seed round funding in place, a team of 15 employees, and a roster of 70 clients. “By the end of year one, about 10 percent of the Fortune 500 were using our services,” says Kelly. “Our client list also includes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Google, FireEye, NATO, and the Swedish Armed Forces.”

In the future, the company, now under the direction of CEO Dave Corcoran, plans to introduce new tools that allow Censys users to be able to interact with the data, gain insights from the Censys security team, and enhance their ability to understand their network exposure, protect their brands, and seek out threats. As Halderman notes, “Our goal is to change the way security operates—to make it more quantitative, more precise and more accurate. We want to be more than a data provider, which is why we just closed our $2.6 million round. Based on customer feedback, we’re exploring automatic alert systems and new tools that help organizations prioritize their resources. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve, and we see tremendous opportunities for growth.”