Designing technology with security in mind


Allie Arp, CSL

Whenever an extension is added to a house, part of the original house must be taken down and rebuilt – but such remodeling can introduce problems and produce suboptimal results. Many other man-made systems, like utility vehicles or power stations, face a similar problem: They are built for high performance, with limited concerns for security. When security features are later tacked on, opportunities for failure can appear.

Systems would be safer if security measures were built in from the start - The idea behind CSL Associate Professor Mohamed Belabbas’ project, “Collaborative research: Foundations of secure multi-agent networked systems.”
Mohamed Belabbas
Mohamed Belabbas

“The idea was to try to understand the basic design principle that would allow us to make control systems robust to attacks from their inception, or as we say, by design,” said Belabbas, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Very often, when we design a system, we design it for high performance. But control systems are more and more connected, making them subject to attacks. We need to rethink the basic modeling ideas.”

High performance in systems can take different shapes. Some systems are built to withstand intensive fieldwork, while others are made to perform a very specific task. Regardless of the original assignment, the system must also be secure. In order to make these machines resistant to malicious agents, security layers must be added.

“We’re hoping to revisit the basics in order to secure a system,” Belabbas said. “Currently, security is ignored in the original design at the expense of performance, and then extra layers of protection are added. What we want to do is add security starting from the very beginning of the design process.”

This may sound like the future of system design; indeed Belabbas, along with his co-investigators, are taking the research to minds that will facilitate control system design and deployment in the future. Part of their funded project includes community outreach in K-12 schools. By partnering with the student-run Engineering Outreach Society, Belabbas and his students will take computer demonstrations and hands-on experiments into Champaign-Urbana high schools.

“We are very excited at the challenge of reaching out to high-school students to share and present our ideas,” Belabbas said. “First of all, it is always exciting to face a crowd so eager to learn new things, but also, just having to think about how to broach the topic and motivate students will force us to get a very different perspective of our work.”

This project was funded by the National Science Foundation.