T cells are an important class of detector cells in the immune system. There are several different kinds of T cells, each of which plays its own role in the immune response. All T cells, however, have binding regions that can detect antigen fragments (peptides). These binding regions are created through a pseudo-random genetic process, which we can think of analogously to generating random strings. Given that the binding regions, called receptors, are created randomly, there is a high probability that some T cells will detect self peptides. The immune system solves this problem by sending nonfunctional T cells to an organ called the thymus to mature. There are several stages of T-cell maturation, one of which is a censoring process in which T cells that bind with self proteins circulating through the thymus are destroyed. T cells that fail to bind to self are allowed to mature, leave the thymus, and become part of the active immune system. This process is called negative selection (for a more detailed description, see "Ensuring Tolerance"). Once in circulation, if a T cell binds to antigen in sufficient concentration, a recognition event can be said to have occurred, triggering the complex set of events that leads to elimination of the antigen.
The T cell censoring process can be thought of as defining a protected collection of data (the self proteins) in terms of its complementary patterns (the nonself proteins). We have used this principle to design a distributable change-detection algorithm with interesting properties. The algorithm works by first defining a set of data or activity patterns to protect (called self), then generating detectors that fail to match self, and finally, using the detectors to monitor self for changes. Details of these steps are given in our papers.
The algorithm has several interesting properties. First, it can be easily distributed because each detector covers a small part of nonself. A set of negative detectors can be split up over multiple sites, which will reduce the coverage at any given site but provide good system-wide coverage. To achieve similar system-wide coverage with positive detection is much more expensive: either a nearly complete set of positive detectors will be needed at every site, resulting in multiple copies of the detection system, or the sites must communicate frequently to coordinate their results. A second point about this algorithm is that it can tolerate noise, depending on the details of how the matching function is defined. Consequently, the algorithm is likely to be more applicable to dynamic or noisy data like the intrusion-detection example than, for instance, in cryptographic applications where efficient change-detection methods already exist.
© 1997 Steven A Hofmeyr
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