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Wireless Security:
From Android to 5G

Ted and Karyn Hume Center

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Prior to joining Tech, Clancy worked for various organizations within the Department of Defense, primarily focused on applications of academic wireless research to the national security mission. In his final tour, he was the technical advisor for the Iraqi telecommunications reconstruction effort in Baghdad, and successfully led the effort to architect and activate Iraq’s Internet backbone.

He earned his B.S. in computer engineering from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and his M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He received his Ph.D. in computer science in 2006 from the University of Maryland, College Park.

photo of Charles Clancy

Charles Clancy

If commercial 5G devices are able to use unoccupied military channels, how can engineers ensure that users cannot infer military operations based on what frequencies are available when?

Can you take an inexpensive, commercial Android-based phone and change out the software to convert it for secure military communications? Or is the military doomed to always be spending more for its devices than civilians?

How will next-gen cognitive radios provide resilient communications when facing adversarial jammers?

From devices to network systems, wireless security issues abound at all levels for Charles Clancy, who joined the department last summer as an associate professor. Clancy also serves as director of Virginia Tech’s Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology.

The issues Clancy’s team is investigating reflect the broad range of issues in the field. Some of Clancy’s students are working on communications protocols, such as 3GPP Long Term Evolution (LTE). Others are investigating jamming attacks and next-gen cognitive radio. The research is a mix of classified and non-classified. As a general rule, he says, research from the attack perspective is classified, but defense is not.

Then there is the anticipated 5G mobile network system, which is expected to enable consumer devices to use open military channels, among other commercial and federal frequency bands. Clancy describes three options currently being studied to protect against users deducing military operations. “You can obfuscate the information, making it less clear why different bands are being assigned, so that it’s hard to draw the lines back. You can add dummy constraints into the system so it’s hard to tell if there is a real military need, or if it’s a fake one to fool you,” he says.

A third approach is to charge per megahertz per second. “If people are trying to probe your system and it costs real money for every probe request, it will cost too much to launch an attack.”

Secure ways to share the military spectrum will be a critical component of 5G, he says. “One of the big forcing functions for 5G will be that we’ve run out of cell phone spectrum to support the growing demand of mobile broadband users.”

Clancy’s team is also investigating improving the security of some off-the-shelf technology — Android-based phones. “The military currently spends thousands for each tactical radio,” he says, “and would love to use an Android phone instead.” Commercial Android phones, however, are not designed to military security requirements. “Changing the hardware for enhanced security would be expensive, so we’re looking at how to take a commodity phone and change the software to make it more secure for the military environment,” he explains. “The basic question is how can the armed services feel comfortable using Android phones manufactured overseas in a military environment.”

While Clancy’s research spans commercial and national security, his role as director of the Hume Center focuses more on national security. The Hume Center tackles research including cybersecurity, intelligence analysis, and applications of wireless communications in what is often called C4ISR: command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

“We promote interdisciplinary efforts in national security that are beyond the scope of one individual laboratory,” he explains. Currently 10 different research groups from around the university work closely with the center. In its second year of operation, the center’s annual research expenditures are about $4 million, which is expected to grow to more than $7 million next year, he says

Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington.

Charles Clancy is stationed in the new Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington. L-3 Communications, an industry partner of the Hume Center through the NSF I/UCRC program (see page 29) is moving its new cyber division into the building in order to continue strong ties with Virginia Tech. Last year, L-3 donated one of the largest philanthropic gifts by a company ever given to Virginia Tech to support cyber research and education.

But the Hume Center is not just a research organization. With a primary mission of engaging students and developing future leaders in the Intelligence Community, the center seeks research opportunities that involve students.

Currently 38 graduate students are involved in research connected with the center. Twenty-eight undergraduates are involved in research, projects, and other activities. “Not all of our undergraduates are STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]. Students in political science, international relations, and other fields are also involved.”

“If we aren’t doing research that involves students, then we’re just another defense contractor,” Clancy says. “Our focus is on educating and mentoring students interested in the field.” To deepen the connections with students, all of the Hume Center research faculty teach courses and advise graduate students. “We’re in an academic department for a reason.”