Cylab awarded $1.1 million NSF grant for Internet of Things

This summer, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $1.1 million, four-year grant to a team of researchers in Carnegie Mellon’s Cylab to solve the problem of security in the Internet of Things (IoT).

The grant recipient is Vyas Sekar, assistant professor in electrical computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, who will work alongside professors Yuvraj Agarwal and Srinivasan Seshan from the School of Computer Science. The grant will primarily serve to pay the tuition and stipends of the faculty’s PhD students, whom Sekar deems “the absolute ‘lifeblood’ of the awesome research results you see here at CMU.”

The IoT describes the nearly six billion everyday devices that we use with network connectivity to send and receive information. It integrates the real and digital worlds and comprises the devices that we call “smart.” We use these devices in our houses, cars, natural environments, and even when choosing outfits, so, naturally, they run on an extremely wide variety of platforms.

Because of this diversity, the devices cannot be easily secured or regulated through software, like anti-virus programs. The best way to combat this problem is through the network.

In a press release, Sekar said that the team will operate under the assumption that the devices are broken and cannot be fixed, therefore the solution is to put a metaphorical “kevlar vest” around them to intercept any threats before they reach the device.

Despite its inherent brokenness, the IoT is worth the security. Sekar wrote in an email, “IoT promises to revolutionize various aspects of everyday life and many market segments — introducing new opportunities to improve the efficiency of various processes, cut energy costs, improve quality of life and so on.” But we interact with these devices so closely and so often that they tend to interact with our private information. A more secure IoT will allow users to feel more confident that their privacy will not be violated.

The NSF grant awarded to Sekar and Cylab signifies that this issue is worth the time, money, and research to the broader research community as well as to the average American. In order to be considered for a grant, researchers must submit a proposal to the NSF. The proposal is then sent through various phases of peer review.

Panels of experts in the field evaluate all proposals to recommend which ones promise the most innovation and impact. Program managers then dole out grants to the top-rated researchers.

What makes Cylab’s approach to security unique among Carnegie Mellon’s peer institutions is the breadth of specialties and departments that its faculty represent. Each team member brings something essential to the project. According to Sekar, security is “an inherently ‘cross cutting’ activity that entails several disciplines and a collaborative research attitude,” which Cylab’s faculty is built to handle.

On the collaboration with Agarwal and Seshan, Sekar said, “we bring together complementary expertise in different areas such as network security, software-defined networks, sensor networks, mobile systems, privacy, etc. that will be fundamentally necessary to address the IoT security and privacy research challenges.”