UMass Lowell professor awarded $4.5 million grant for cybersecurity research

UMass Lowell Prof. Xinwen Fu and computer science major C. Erastus Toe.

LOWELL — UMass Lowell Computer Science professor Xinwen Fu has been awarded more than $4.5 million by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy for his research on the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to the network of separate physical and virtual devices that communicate with each other wirelessly, without human interaction or intervention.

“IoT is booming with the popularity of smart, mobile devices. However, these devices, if left unprotected, will allow hackers to be able to collect or manipulate data using a Bluetooth connection,” said Fu, a cybersecurity and cyberforensics expert who is the director of UMass Lowell’s Center for Internet Security and Forensics Education and Research (iSAFER) and a faculty member with the UMass Lowell Cyber Range, where students get hands-on experience with cybersecurity.

Last fall, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded two grants totaling $1.54 million over three years to Fu and his collaborators from the University of Central Florida (UCF) to improve the security and privacy of IoT.

The first grant, worth more than $1,198,000, focuses on building a secure, trustworthy and reliable air-quality monitoring system for smart, connected communities.

“We are building sensors so that the air quality data cannot be manipulated by anybody, even by those who can physically touch and access the sensors,” Fu said.

A total of 110 prototypes will be deployed across Boston and Orlando, Fla. The data collected will be transmitted to a central server for analysis.

“The techniques used for securing the sensors can also be applied to protect all kinds of IoT devices, including security cameras, hospital medical sensors and virtual home assistants, so that administrators and researchers can make decisions based on trustworthy data,” Fu said.

The second grant, worth more than $340,000, is funding to build low-cost, state-of-the-art IoT security hands-on laboratory kits for use in classrooms.

“We will teach students how to design and build secure IoT devices. They will experiment with the devices and learn how to defend them from cyberattacks,” said Fu, who is the lead researcher for UMass Lowell on both projects. The IoT platform that will be developed “costs significantly less than existing platforms and will allow for the development of a full-fledged IoT laboratory with hardware security modules that is affordable for students and institutions.”

Earlier this semester, the DOE awarded $3 million to Fu and his UCF co-researchers to secure IoT-based automation systems used in smart buildings. Today’s smart building technology uses wireless sensors, equipment controllers and cloud-based software to control heat, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting systems to save energy, increase comfort and improve air quality.

“Depending on its size and type, each building can have 50 to 100 controlled devices, while each device can have, on average, 10 sensors, which means each building can have 500 to 1,000 IoT gateway points. With such a large network, vulnerabilities exist that could allow malicious hackers to attack those sensors, connect their computer to the building’s system and attack all devices hooked into the entire building,” Fu said. “My job is to examine network weaknesses and design defense measures against such cyberattacks.”