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  1. Sequential decision-making under uncertainty is present in many important problems. Two popular approaches for tackling such problems are reinforcement learning and online search (e.g., Monte Carlo tree search). While the former learns a policy by interacting with the environment (typically done before execution), the latter uses a generative model of the environment to sample promising action trajectories at decision time. Decision-making is particularly challenging in non-stationary environments, where the environment in which an agent operates can change over time. Both approaches have shortcomings in such settings -- on the one hand, policies learned before execution become stale when the environment changes and relearning takes both time and computational effort. Online search, on the other hand, can return sub-optimal actions when there are limitations on allowed runtime. In this paper, we introduce \textit{Policy-Augmented Monte Carlo tree search} (PA-MCTS), which combines action-value estimates from an out-of-date policy with an online search using an up-to-date model of the environment. We prove theoretical results showing conditions under which PA-MCTS selects the one-step optimal action and also bound the error accrued while following PA-MCTS as a policy. We compare and contrast our approach with AlphaZero, another hybrid planning approach, and Deep Q Learning on several OpenAI Gym environments. Through extensive experiments, we show that under non-stationary settings with limited time constraints, PA-MCTS outperforms these baselines. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available May 1, 2025
  2. Adversaries are often able to penetrate networks and compromise systems by exploiting vulnerabilities in people and systems. The key to the success of these attacks is information that adversaries collect throughout the phases of the cyber kill chain. We summarize and analyze the methods, tactics, and tools that adversaries use to conduct reconnaissance activities throughout the attack process. First, we discuss what types of information adversaries seek and how and when they can obtain this information. Then, we provide a taxonomy and detailed overview of adversarial reconnaissance techniques. The taxonomy introduces a categorization of reconnaissance techniques based on the source as third-party and human-, and system-based information gathering. This article provides a comprehensive view of adversarial reconnaissance that can help in understanding and modeling this complex but vital aspect of cyber attacks as well as insights that can improve defensive strategies, such as cyber deception. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available July 31, 2024
  3. In the wake of a cybersecurity incident, it is crucial to promptly discover how the threat actors breached security in order to assess the impact of the incident and to develop and deploy countermeasures that can protect against further attacks. To this end, defenders can launch a cyber-forensic investigation, which discovers the techniques that the threat actors used in the incident. A fundamental challenge in such an investigation is prioritizing the investigation of particular techniques since the investigation of each technique requires time and effort, but forensic analysts cannot know which ones were actually used before investigating them. To ensure prompt discovery, it is imperative to provide decision support that can help forensic analysts with this prioritization. A recent study demonstrated that data-driven decision support, based on a dataset of prior incidents, can provide state-of-the-art prioritization. However, this data-driven approach, called DISCLOSE, is based on a heuristic that utilizes only a subset of the available information and does not approximate optimal decisions. To improve upon this heuristic, we introduce a principled approach for data-driven decision support for cyber-forensic investigations. We formulate the decision-support problem using a Markov decision process, whose states represent the states of a forensic investigation. To solve the decision problem, we propose a Monte Carlo tree search based method, which relies on a k-NN regression over prior incidents to estimate state-transition probabilities. We evaluate our proposed approach on multiple versions of the MITRE ATT&CK dataset, which is a knowledge base of adversarial techniques and tactics based on real-world cyber incidents, and demonstrate that our approach outperforms DISCLOSE in terms of techniques discovered per effort spent. 
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  4. The offline pickup and delivery problem with time windows (PDPTW) is a classical combinatorial optimization problem in the transportation community, which has proven to be very challenging computationally. Due to the complexity of the problem, practical problem instances can be solved only via heuristics, which trade-off solution quality for computational tractability. Among the various heuristics, a common strategy is problem decomposition, that is, the reduction of a large-scale problem into a collection of smaller sub-problems, with spatial and temporal decompositions being two natural approaches. While spatial decomposition has been successful in certain settings, effective temporal decomposition has been challenging due to the difficulty of stitching together the sub-problem solutions across the decomposition boundaries. In this work, we introduce a novel temporal decomposition scheme for solving a class of PDPTWs that have narrow time windows, for which it is able to provide both fast and high-quality solutions. We utilize techniques that have been popularized recently in the context of online dial-a-ride problems along with the general idea of rolling horizon optimization. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first attempt to solve offline PDPTWs using such an approach. To show the performance and scalability of our framework, we use the optimization of paratransit services as a motivating example. Due to the lack of benchmark solvers similar to ours (i.e., temporal decomposition with an online solver), we compare our results with an offline heuristic algorithm using Google OR-Tools. In smaller problem instances (with an average of 129 requests per instance), the baseline approach is as competitive as our framework. However, in larger problem instances (approximately 2,500 requests per instance), our framework is more scalable and can provide good solutions to problem instances of varying degrees of difficulty, while the baseline algorithm often fails to find a feasible solution within comparable compute times. 
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  5. Recently, bug-bounty programs have gained popularity and become a significant part of the security culture of many organizations. Bug-bounty programs enable organizations to enhance their security posture by harnessing the diverse expertise of crowds of external security experts (i.e., bug hunters). Nonetheless, quantifying the benefits of bug-bounty programs remains elusive, which presents a significant challenge for managing them. Previous studies focused on measuring their benefits in terms of the number of vulnerabilities reported or based on the properties of the reported vulnerabilities, such as severity or exploitability. However, beyond these inherent properties, the value of a report also depends on the probability that the vulnerability would be discovered by a threat actor before an internal expert could discover and patch it. In this paper, we present a data-driven study of the Chromium and Firefox vulnerability-reward programs. First, we estimate the difficulty of discovering a vulnerability using the probability of rediscovery as a novel metric. Our findings show that vulnerability discovery and patching provide clear benefits by making it difficult for threat actors to find vulnerabilities; however, we also identify opportunities for improvement, such as incentivizing bug hunters to focus more on development releases. Second, we compare the types of vulnerabilities that are discovered internally vs. externally and those that are exploited by threat actors. We observe significant differences between vulnerabilities found by external bug hunters, internal security teams, and external threat actors, which indicates that bug-bounty programs provide an important benefit by complementing the expertise of internal teams, but also that external hunters should be incentivized more to focus on the types of vulnerabilities that are likely to be exploited by threat actors. 
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  6. Although researchers have characterized the bug-bounty ecosystem from the point of view of platforms and programs, minimal effort has been made to understand the perspectives of the main workers: bug hunters. To improve bug bounties, it is important to understand hunters’ motivating factors, challenges, and overall benefits. We address this research gap with three studies: identifying key factors through a free listing survey (n=56), rating each factor’s importance with a larger-scale factor-rating survey (n=159), and conducting semi-structured interviews to uncover details (n=24). Of 54 factors that bug hunters listed, we find that rewards and learning opportunities are the most important benefits. Further, we find scope to be the top differentiator between programs. Surprisingly, we find earning reputation to be one of the least important motivators for hunters. Of the challenges we identify, communication problems, such as unresponsiveness and disputes, are the most substantial. We present recommendations to make the bug-bounty ecosystem accommodating to more bug hunters and ultimately increase participation in an underutilized market. 
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  7. COVID-19 has radically transformed urban travel behavior throughout the world. Agencies have had to provide adequate service while navigating a rapidly changing environment with reduced revenue. As COVID-19-related restrictions are lifted, transit agencies are concerned about their ability to adapt to changes in ridership behavior and public transit usage. To aid their becoming more adaptive to sudden or persistent shifts in ridership, we addressed three questions: To what degree has COVID-19 affected fixed-line public transit ridership and what is the relationship between reduced demand and -vehicle trips? How has COVID-19 changed ridership patterns and are they expected to persist after restrictions are lifted? Are there disparities in ridership changes across socioeconomic groups and mobility-impaired riders? Focusing on Nashville and Chattanooga, TN, ridership demand and vehicle trips were compared with anonymized mobile location data to study the relationship between mobility patterns and transit usage. Correlation analysis and multiple linear regression were used to investigate the relationship between socioeconomic indicators and changes in transit ridership, and an analysis of changes in paratransit demand before and during COVID-19. Ridership initially dropped by 66% and 65% over the first month of the pandemic for Nashville and Chattanooga, respectively. Cellular mobility patterns in Chattanooga indicated that foot traffic recovered to a greater degree than transit ridership between mid-April and the last week in June, 2020. Education-level had a statistically significant impact on changes in fixed-line bus transit, and the distribution of changes in demand for paratransit services were similar to those of fixed-line bus transit. 
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  8. Accurately predicting the ridership of public-transit routes provides substantial benefits to both transit agencies, who can dispatch additional vehicles proactively before the vehicles that serve a route become crowded, and to passengers, who can avoid crowded vehicles based on publicly available predictions. The spread of the coronavirus disease has further elevated the importance of ridership prediction as crowded vehicles now present not only an inconvenience but also a public-health risk. At the same time, accurately predicting ridership has become more challenging due to evolving ridership patterns, which may make all data except for the most recent records stale. One promising approach for improving prediction accuracy is to fine-tune the hyper-parameters of machine-learning models for each transit route based on the characteristics of the particular route, such as the number of records. However, manually designing a machine-learning model for each route is a labor-intensive process, which may require experts to spend a significant amount of their valuable time. To help experts with designing machine-learning models, we propose a neural-architecture and feature search approach, which optimizes the architecture and features of a deep neural network for predicting the ridership of a public-transit route. Our approach is based on a randomized local hyper-parameter search, which minimizes both prediction error as well as the complexity of the model. We evaluate our approach on real-world ridership data provided by the public transit agency of Chattanooga, TN, and we demonstrate that training neural networks whose architectures and features are optimized for each route provides significantly better performance than training neural networks whose architectures and features are generic. 
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  9. Many transit agencies operating paratransit and microtransit ser-vices have to respond to trip requests that arrive in real-time, which entails solving hard combinatorial and sequential decision-making problems under uncertainty. To avoid decisions that lead to signifi-cant inefficiency in the long term, vehicles should be allocated to requests by optimizing a non-myopic utility function or by batching requests together and optimizing a myopic utility function. While the former approach is typically offline, the latter can be performed online. We point out two major issues with such approaches when applied to paratransit services in practice. First, it is difficult to batch paratransit requests together as they are temporally sparse. Second, the environment in which transit agencies operate changes dynamically (e.g., traffic conditions can change over time), causing the estimates that are learned offline to become stale. To address these challenges, we propose a fully online approach to solve the dynamic vehicle routing problem (DVRP) with time windows and stochastic trip requests that is robust to changing environmental dynamics by construction. We focus on scenarios where requests are relatively sparse-our problem is motivated by applications to paratransit services. We formulate DVRP as a Markov decision process and use Monte Carlo tree search to evaluate actions for any given state. Accounting for stochastic requests while optimizing a non-myopic utility function is computationally challenging; indeed, the action space for such a problem is intractably large in practice. To tackle the large action space, we leverage the structure of the problem to design heuristics that can sample promising actions for the tree search. Our experiments using real-world data from our partner agency show that the proposed approach outperforms existing state-of-the-art approaches both in terms of performance and robustness. 
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  10. Vehicle routing problems (VRPs) can be divided into two major categories: offline VRPs, which consider a given set of trip requests to be served, and online VRPs, which consider requests as they arrive in real-time. Based on discussions with public transit agencies, we identify a real-world problem that is not addressed by existing formulations: booking trips with flexible pickup windows (e.g., 3 hours) in advance (e.g., the day before) and confirming tight pickup windows (e.g., 30 minutes) at the time of booking. Such a service model is often required in paratransit service settings, where passengers typically book trips for the next day over the phone. To address this gap between offline and online problems, we introduce a novel formulation, the offline vehicle routing problem with online bookings. This problem is very challenging computationally since it faces the complexity of considering large sets of requests—similar to offline VRPs—but must abide by strict constraints on running time—similar to online VRPs. To solve this problem, we propose a novel computational approach, which combines an anytime algorithm with a learning-based policy for real-time decisions. Based on a paratransit dataset obtained from our partner transit agency, we demonstrate that our novel formulation and computational approach lead to significantly better outcomes in this service setting than existing algorithms. 
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