Cyber security: Protecting the nation's digital highways

Professors Haibo He, Yan Sun and Peter August
Professors Haibo He, Yan Sun and Peter August are working to protect the U.S. power grid from a terrorist attack.

Computer networks control the nation’s power grid, air traffic control system, stock markets, e-commerce and more. It’s why President Barack Obama identified a cyber attack on the country’s network infrastructure as one of the most significant threats facing the United States.

Engineering researchers at the University of Rhode Island agree. Projects here aim to prevent a devastating virtual attack.

“Imagine there is no Internet. Imagine a massive blackout caused by hackers from a foreign country. Imagine at the same time the cell phone network didn’t work,” Associate Professor Yan Sun says. “People would panic and there would be serious consequences.”

The chances of such an attack increase every day as we wirelessly connect all sorts of devices – smart phones, alarm systems, cars and even refrigerators – to the Internet. In the battlefield, soldiers carry equipment that beams back video, troop movements and other information to command centers miles away. It’s a field day for hackers.

To foil hackers, Sun and her colleagues focus on developing better secure network protocols that route packets of digital information to their destinations. Some algorithms ensure the packets take the correct path and are not intercepted or delayed by hackers. Other algorithms strengthen secure synchronization protocols that use a common time on trusted computers to ensure data are delivered correctly and in time.

To protect the domestic power grid, Associate Professor Haibo He is building computer models of the grid to help utilities identify and eliminate weak points. With the click of a mouse, his team can see the nationwide effects of a major transmission line or power plant going offline.

Elsewhere, researchers want to ensure the credibility of online information. Internet shoppers turn to online reviews to decide whether to purchase a toy, a book, a hotel stay or entrust their child to a particular day care. Software under development by Sun and her team promises to warn consumers about sham reviews.

The research builds on the college’s strengths in signal processing. The analysis of patterns in signals lends itself directly to developing methods to identify patterns in online reviews. Looking for errors – or lack thereof – in prescribed patterns can help researchers spot false reviews.

To maximize their research, engineering faculty and students team up with the University’s Digital Forensics and Cyber Security Center, a cross-disciplinary effort to address network security in its totality.

“Cyber security is a relatively new field and not too many solutions exist yet,” Professor He says. “But our work promises to find them.”

Yan Sun
Associate Professor, computer engineering
Kelley Hall Annex
4 East Alumni Ave.
Kingston, RI 02881 USA

Haibo He
Associate Professor, electrical engineering
Kelley Hall Annex
4 East Alumni Ave.
Kingston, RI 02881 USA