Stevens Wins ONR Grant to Develop Secure Wireless Networks

Researcher establishes innovative techniques for efficient and secure wireless communication for the US Navy

10/10/2012

As combatants and battlegrounds become more unconventional and ill-defined, the military has come to rely on sensor networks in the field to detect enemy movements and improve situational awareness. However, wirelessly transferring data from those sensors continues to be a security risk, and considerable energy must be used to encrypt and secure the data against eavesdroppers, draining valuable battery power. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has awarded a grant to Dr. Cristina Comaniciu of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology to innovatively redefine the role of noise and interference in support of security assurance in wireless sensor networks that is energy-efficient.

“Advanced wireless technologies provide a critical advantage to our armed forces,” says Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science. “Dr. Comaniciu’s research continues to advance our nation’s capabilities by ensuring more efficient and secure communications.”

Modern warfare is often characterized as asymmetric, conducted in uncertain settings against forces that can be informally organized, poorly equipped, and unpredictable. In this context, networks of inexpensive sensors that wirelessly transmit environmental data and information on enemy movements deny opposing forces the element of surprise, helping troops to secure a volatile area as safely and effectively as possible.

These networks are composed of battery-powered, disposable sensor nodes that are spread out over the area to be monitored. Strong data encryption needed to secure a wireless transmission can drastically exhaust battery power. Because it is too dangerous to cross enemy lines in order to replace a node’s batteries, maximizing the efficiency of data transfer is crucial to preserving the life of each sensor node and the wireless sensor network as a whole.

Seeking to balance security needs and energy efficiency, Dr. Comaniciu is reassessing the value of noise, interference, and fading. “Dr. Comaniciu is making highly ingenious use of typical impediments and failures in communications in order to protect data from unwanted eavesdroppers,” says Dr. Yu-Dong Yao, Director of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. By leveraging these naturally occurring phenomena, Dr. Comaniciu is able to reduce the amount of energy and encryption needed to secure wireless data transmission.

Dr. Comaniciu will investigate cross-layer secrecy metrics for   maximizing security while optimizing energy usage. Depending on the content of data sent, selective protection may be sufficiently effective in securing important transmissions. Dr. Comaniciu elaborates, “When transmitting images, only specific areas need to be protected. Instead of protecting the entire image, preventing an eavesdropper to decode key portions of the image saves energy while still maintaining a desired level of security.”

Professor Comaniciu’s research focuses on what is referred to as Physical Layer security. The Physical Layer, in networking terms, is the medium responsible for the ultimate transmission of data over the network. At this level, data are transmitted through the air, cables, wires, or fiber optics via electric voltages, radio frequencies, or pulses of infrared light. Eavesdropping is a common method of attacking a wireless network at the Physical Layer. Dr. Comaniciu is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and she is the Electrical Engineering Graduate Program Director. She served as an Associate Editor for IEEE Communications Letters between 2007-2011. She received the 2007 IEEE Marconi Best Paper Prize Award in Wireless Communications for the paper "On the Capacity of Mobile Ad Hoc Networks with Delay Constraints", co-authored with Vincent Poor. She was awarded the 2012 Rutgers School of Engineering Distinguished Young Alumnus Medal of Excellence. 

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