Enhancing battlefield wireless security

Formulating new methods of authentication to secure wireless communication for the armed forces.

Army Research Office-funded research provides resilient encryption in the absence of supporting infrastructure

For as long as armies have had to communicate and coordinate over large distances, people have tried to intercept messages, impersonate senders, or confound the enemy with decoy messages. In the information age, military networks have grown in complexity, with soldiers, vehicles and sensor nodes that all need to communicate in a flexible and secure manner. As the ability to communicate has grown in sophistication, so has the potential for eavesdropping and malicious attacks, and the integrity and security of battlefield communications is of paramount importance to modern military missions. Mobile nodes operating outside supporting infrastructure—for instance soldiers or vehicles performing mission-critical tactical tasks in hostile battlefield environments—provide significant challenges to secure communication

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Dr. Yingying Chen

In order to address these serious concerns facing the security of battlefield communication, Dr. Yingying Chen of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology has been awarded a three-year grant from the Army Research Office (ARO) for innovative research on mobile wireless security. Dr. Chen has formulated new methods of authentication that can generate secret keys based on hard-to-falsify physical properties, potentially ensuring secure communication for the armed forces. The processes can also be applied to civilian uses, allowing members of an organization to work securely even when they are outside the bounds of that organization’s supporting infrastructure.

“With the rapid advancement of wireless technologies, over-the-air communication has played a crucial role in supporting numerous military and civilian applications,” says Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science. “Technologies that can guarantee the security of wireless transmissions in remote surroundings would go a long way toward ensuring the effectiveness of military missions and the safety of the servicemen and women who carry them out.”

Wireless transmitters and receivers need to be able to assure secure and reliable data delivery in order to enable proper response to scenarios that threaten the availability of wireless communications. However, effective user authentication and secure communication for ad hoc networks in the battlefield remain challenging due to the lack of specialized security devices. Mobile nodes must collaborate in order to provide secure data exchange, and the establishment of keys in this manner is vulnerable to eavesdropping.

Dr. Chen has proposed the establishment of a holistic framework that allows communicating nodes to make inferences of physical properties of a network transmission to enhance wireless security. In networking, the physical layer defines the parameters for sending raw bits in a network—what medium is used, the electrical connectors, the frequencies for transmission, etc. Since wireless transmissions travel through the air rather than the more controlled environment within a wire, physical layer properties in wireless communication vary over time and include a degree of randomness from the environment. The use of these physical properties for authentication is an attractive option because it would eliminate the need for supporting encryption infrastructure by supplementing properties that have already been implemented rather than creating a new system.

“As wireless communications become increasingly prevalent in our society, Dr. Chen stands at the forefront of wireless technology security researchers who are scrutinizing and adapting information security for the future,” says Dr. Yu-Dong Yao, Director of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Dr. Yingying (Jennifer) Chen co-authored the book Securing Emerging Wireless Systems in 2009 and published over 70 journal articles and referred conference papers. She is the director of Data Analysis and Information Security (DAISY) Lab at Stevens. She is the recipient of the NSF CAREER Award 2010 and Google Research Award 2010. She was honored with a New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame Innovators Award 2012. Her research has been reported in numerous media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, MIT Technology Review, Inside Science, NPR, and CNET.

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