Tyrone Burke, May 14, 2020

5G Network Security Researcher Delves Deeper with Notable NSERC Support

The attack took down AirBnB, Amazon, Spotify, and Twitter. It even tripped up NHL.com.

In October 2016, a large-scale cyberattack used a network of internet-connected devices infected with malware to target some of the world’s most popular websites. Using common household electronics like printers, web cams and baby monitors, hackers bombarded these well-known websites with tens of millions of queries.

Ashraf Matrawy headshot
Carleton School of Information Technology researcher Ashraf Matrawy was awarded an NSERC Collaborative Research and Development Grant to develop 5G network slice security techniques.

Known as a distributed denial-of-service attack, it crashed the websites of some of the internet’s best-known brands, rendering them useless for most of the day. But if the hackers had access to an even larger number of connected devices, the results could have been worse. With the total number of connected devices growing each day, the need to ensure they are secure has never been greater.

“We are moving in to an era where we will use the internet in a totally different way,” Says Dr. Ashraf Matrawy, Professor of Engineering in Carleton’s School of Information Technology.

“5G networks will allow many more devices to be connected. There will be connected vehicles, agricultural equipment, and appliances. We need to understand how the internet will carry all of this data.”

Networks will need to be managed differently, and to be secure. Matrawy’s research explores how that can be accomplished. He was recently awarded $510,000 through a Collaborative Research and Development Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Telus Communications, with Telus contributing an additional $150,000 of in-kind contributions.

“On 5G networks, users will be sharing a lot of equipment, whether they like it or not,” says Matrawy.

“One way these networks could be managed is through what we call network slicing. We put all of a user’s traffic and video on a one chunk of the network.”

A network slice is a secure end-to-end connection that uses shared infrastructure. The 5th generation of wireless technology will use many more cellular towers than its predecessors did, and different organizations will need to operate simultaneously on the same physical infrastructure. Each slice of the network will defined by software, and should be isolated from the slices of other users.

Connected devices could use levels of security appropriate for their intended use. Medical devices need to be more secure than connected fridges do, but both need to be adequately protected from the sort of malware that was used in the 2016 distributed denial of service attack.

To ensure that the security solutions that his team is working on are progressing practically, Matrawy regularly discusses his research with Telus.

“Collaboration between academia and industry is a very important part of this project,” he says.

“We regularly show Telus what we are trying to do, and they give us feedback on it from a real-world perspective.”

New techniques and protocol need to balance security needs with usability and network performance.

“We need to make sure that it doesn’t come at a high price, in terms of performance,” says Matrawy.

“There are security techniques that I can put in your cell phone that will make it more secure, but I need to make sure that you can continue to use your cell phone in a way that you are comfortable with. If security protocols impact the usability of a device, and it makes users miserable, they will decide that they do not want to use that device.”

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