Wei Zhang, Ph.D., Improves Security in the Internet of Things

Wei Zhang, Ph.D.

The Internet, once a single entity, is quickly becoming an “Internet of Things” (IoT) made up of multiple electronic devices that network and communicate with each other and with other web-enabled gadgets.

The embedded systems that link the IoT’s smartphones, fitness trackers, sensors and medical devices (to name just a few) also present significant security challenges with potential to threaten personal, corporate and national safety.

Wei Zhang, Ph.D., professor of computer engineering in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, and co-investigators from three other universities have received National Science Foundation funding for a curriculum innovation project that aims to correct this. They want to train students to address potential security threats throughout the embedded system design process. Their curriculum focuses on the area where leaks are most likely to occur: the junction between software and hardware.

“Networking is where you find access points for security threats,” said Zhang. “Security attacks can happen at the software level, but they occur because of hardware holes.”

This project brings together investigators from Southern Illinois University, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of Texas at San Antonio and VCU. Zhang points out that one of the team’s strengths is its inclusion of specialists in hardware and software.

“Security has been focused on viruses and software, but the hardware itself isn’t totally safe,” said Zhang. “So our team of collaborators is integrated on both levels.”

The course modules they are developing will be similarly integrated, training students to see, and defend against, potential fissures in embedded systems’ cyber-physical seams. A course in embedded system architecture is in the works, and an online course may be available online as early as next year. Zhang is introducing some elements of both in his courses this semester. The anticipated result is a better-prepared workforce and a safer Internet of Things.

“Security is systematic. It’s not limited to one layer. If you lack that knowledge, you can’t solve the whole problem,” said Zhang.