Professor Works to Keep Hackers from Attacking Cyber Systems
Tiny sensors, or small, computer-like devices, are now found in many items, such as automobiles, bridges, buildings and even pacemakers. Because these items transfer information using wireless communication, they are at risk for being hacked, Xiaojun Cao, associate professor of computer science at Georgia State University, said.
“Wireless is open and everybody can get into it, so it’s very possible that an attacker will be able to attack,” said Cao, whose research focuses on cyber physical systems, such as sensors.
At the recent Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, researchers demonstrated their ability to hack into the electronic controls of cars, remotely disabling the driver’s ability to brake or steer properly. They warned that a wide range of devices could be at risk.
Last year, an episode of the popular TV series “Homeland” laid out a frightening vision of terrorists hacking into the pacemaker of the vice president of the United States, triggering a fatal heart attack by instructing the device to administer a series of deadly shocks.
Cao said the “Homeland” scenario is not pure fantasy.
“If people are around you or close to you, it’s possible they can attack or control the pacemaker in your body if you don’t have security in mind,” Cao said. “The pacemaker talks to the controller through wireless. The signal is open. Everybody can get it.”
Cao is working to develop technology that could help detect unauthorized attempts to tap into the wide range of computerized systems that surround us.
“What people envision is that we’re going to have sensors that can monitor everything around our world,” Cao said. “If we have those kinds of devices all around us, we want to make sure those devices are secured. Even if you physically secure the sensor by using a lock or putting it in a room, whenever you use wireless to report the information back to the controller it can be stolen by an attacker.”
Wireless technology offers several advantages – it’s flexible and easy to install and maintain.
Sensors play an integral role in many everyday products. Automobiles contain sensors that monitor and control a range of measures, including speed, oil levels and tire pressure. Power grids use sensors to monitor the flow of electricity. The pacemaker, a small medical device that helps control abnormal heart rhythms, contains sensors that are controlled or monitored by a device outside the body.
Still in the early stages, Cao’s research is focused on sensors along rivers that open and close gates, monitor water levels and control the speed of water flow. Cao is using software to simulate and program the sensors in the lab, and he plans to bring his research into the field soon. He is working with computer science graduate student Kebina Manandhar on the project.
In a real system, sensors report information to a controller, most likely inside an office, and the controller sends information or commands back to the sensor. It’s important to secure the information that is going in both directions, Cao said.
Many systems depend on their readings to make decisions about whether to increase or decrease something, such as the flow of electrical current or water.
Cao has developed a method to estimate what the readings should be, and compares them to the actual readings to determine if there is a significant difference. Depending on the system, thousands of sensors could be involved.
Cao’s method could then raise the alarm that a possible security attack is taking place.
While Cao is studying systems to control the flow of river water, Manandhar is studying this approach for power grid systems.
“Cyber physical systems are going to be a bigger and bigger area,” Cao said.
Photos by Carolyn Pruden Richardson