NSF Convergence Accelerator Award for secure 5G communications includes ITI and CIRI researchers


Michael O'Boyle, The Grainger College of Engineering

With both military and critical infrastructure technology evolving to use cellular networks in addition to wired Internet connections, secure communications over mistrusted mobile networks, especially those adopting the new 5G standard, is a high priority in cybersecurity research. The National Science Foundation announced on September 7 that 16 proposals will receive funding through its Convergence Accelerator initiative to assemble talent and turn their ideas for secure 5G communications into proofs-of-concept.

Casey O'Brien
Casey O'Brien

Casey O’Brien, the assistant director for cyber defense education and training in the Information Trust Institute, is a co-principal investigator on a successful proposal along with researchers and engineers from the University of Michigan, Colorado State University, New York University, and Illumio, Inc. He and Randall Sandone, the executive director of the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute, will create the plan to broaden participation and include traditionally underrepresented groups.

The researchers aim to secure 5G communications by adopting a Zero Trust paradigm, where every participant in a network is presumed compromised. They will use a software-based approach to assess the trustworthiness of external devices attempting to communicate. The software will first gather information about the external device’s recent activity and operational status. That information will then be given to a deep neural network which will decide both whether to grant access and the extent of that access.

The team has nine months to create a software proof-of-concept and submit a second proposal along with the other funded groups. Five will then be awarded the funding to fully develop their ideas and bring them to market. They will be judged not only on the technical merits of their solutions, but also how they plan to include groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM. A stated goal of the Convergence Accelerator initiative is to “broaden the participation in [STEM] fields and research endeavors of members of underrepresented groups — including women, Blacks and African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Native Pacific Islanders, and persons with disabilities.” Each Broadening Participation plan must outline how talent from these groups will be recruited and actively included in the research.

Randy Sandone
Randall Sandone

O’Brien and Sandone are responsible for developing this plan. They are proceeding by identifying at least 20 outside parties to involve and seeking their input. In the past, the CIRI has worked with organizations that have relationships with underrepresented groups like Women in Cybersecurity, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. For this effort, O’Brien and Sandone are interviewing even more groups and organizations to determine how the project can meet their needs and how more researchers and engineers can be included.

Implementing Zero Trust security over 5G networks is an inherently multidisciplinary problem requiring a diverse set of ideas, and strengths to succeed. The Broadening Participation plan will help to ensure that all team member perspectives and expertise are captured when evaluating the project’s end goals and their impact to society at scale. O’Brien and Sandone’s team already includes expertise in trustworthy system design, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and edge computing spanning multiple institutions and several disciplines. The plan will ensure that even more voices are heard, maximizing the project’s chance of success.