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Johns Hopkins Aids National Effort To Build A Secure Smart Home

June 11, 2020
CONTACT: Douglas J. Donovan
Cell: 443-462-2947
douglasjdonovan@jhu.edu @jhumediareps

Smart homes of today – with lights, refrigerators and Alexa all talking to each other – aren’t nearly as smart as they need to be to thwart virtual burglars from breaking in. To address the massive security threat to interconnected devices known as the Internet of Things (IoT), Johns Hopkins University and six other institutions are embarking on an effort to fortify vulnerable points of entry against hackers.

The five-year program to develop trustworthy devices and best-practice principles is being funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation and has been dubbed SPLICE, the Security and Privacy in the Lifecycle of IoT for Consumer Environments.

As the smart home market expands rapidly into a more than $53 billion worldwide industry by 2022, Johns Hopkins computer scientist Avi Rubin, a co-principal investigator for SPLICE, said the effort is sorely needed because so few industry standards have been established.

“The current state of affairs in smart home security and privacy is dismal,” Rubin said. “Many smart home IoT devices have been built, sold and deployed without proper security.

“These vulnerable systems often present easy targets for malicious attackers who can utilize them as platforms for further intrusion into the home network, for participation in botnets, and for ransomware attacks,” he added. “An increasing number of home appliances and devices are ‘smart,’ and the result is a much wider attack surface in the home.”

Smart people for smart homes

Front Row (Left to Right): Avi Rubin, Johns Hopkins; Carl Gunter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; David Kotz, Dartmouth; Susan Landau, Tufts; Michel Kornegay, Morgan State University; Tim Pierson, Dartmouth. Back: Adam Bates, UIUC; Denise Anthony, University of Michigan; Kevin Kornegay, Morgan State; Michelle Mazurek, University of Maryland.

The effort, led by Dartmouth College, comes as the federal government and states grapple with laws to protect consumers by requiring companies to equip devices with security measures. Over the past two years Rubin testified three times to the Maryland General Assembly about such mandatory security rules. Legislation failed in Maryland, but California and Oregon passed laws requiring IoT manufacturers to build minimum security features into all devices. The federal government is contemplating similar measures.

Ten faculty experts will manage teams conducting research related to security, privacy, sociology, human-computer interface design, wireless networks, radio engineering and mobile computing. The effort’s principle investigator is David Kotz, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College.

“Home is a place where people need to feel safe from prying eyes,” Kotz said. “SPLICE will address the challenges required for the vision of smart homes to be realized safely and successfully.”

The shift toward smart devices and systems in residences – such as houses, apartments, hotels, and assisted-living facilities – offers benefits such as increased energy efficiency and personalized services. But faulty designs can increase the risks of harm to people and properties.

Since many homes are complex environments in which residents, landlords, and guests have different privacy needs, the research team will consider the interests of all property owners, renters and users.

The program will develop technology and design principles related to smart homes, including solutions such as:

  • The first-ever toolkit to discover, identify, and locate cooperative and non-cooperative smart devices within a home’s wireless network, allowing residents to have a complete understanding of their home’s technological environment;
  • Tools that move away from the failed “notice and consent” model of privacy management – shifting the privacy burden away from end users who are ill-equipped to manage an increase in the number of devices and decisions;
  • Identification of privacy issues in smart homes that must be addressed to advance consumer trust – informing the development of best-practice principles for smart homes.

The group will also develop programs for students, junior researchers, and community members to encourage more people from underrepresented groups to pursue computing careers.

SPLICE, part of NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace Frontiers (SaTC Frontiers), will begin Oct. 1. More information can be found at splice-project.org.

To interview Rubin, contact Douglas Donovan at 443-462-2947 or douglasjdonovan@jhu.edu.

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