Securing wireless access to cyberspace

By Nicole Laidler | November 22, 2013

Xianbin Wang with computer

Xianbin Wang

Almost every aspect of our daily life has been transformed by wireless technologies. From text messaging and photo posting to social networks, to online banking and cloud computing, our digital life in cyberspace is increasingly interconnected with wireless communications technologies.

But while wireless communications devices and services make information sharing faster and easier than ever before, they are also more vulnerable to security threats.

Electrical and Computer Engineering professor and Canada Research Chair in Wireless Communications, Xianbin Wang, is working to reduce the security risks in cyberspace through his research in wireless-device authentication, secure information delivery, intrusion detection, and trust management.

“The fundamental vulnerability for any wireless communication is that the communications channel is not secure. Your communications signal is leaked into the air without any control,” explains Wang. Standardized transmission methods, transparent network protocols, and the broadcast nature of the wireless signal make it much easier for data to be intercepted and possibly exploited for malicious purposes.

Wang says the existing wireless infrastructure has some inherent fundamental security weaknesses, adding another level of complexity to the problem.

“I try to align my research, teaching and innovation towards solving people’s emerging needs in cyberspace,” says Wang, who holds more than 20 patents in adaptive communications, wireless security, and device locationing and tracking. 

But Wang is also interested in the legal and ethical implications of cyberspace. “There are many debates these days about privacy protection on Internet,” he says.

Wang believes that despite efforts by governments in order to establish some basic rules. “There are very few effective and enforceable regulations worldwide on cyber security and privacy protection in the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) sector right now,” he notes. And while the industry as a whole may be growing faster than other sectors, it is becoming more dominated by only a few large players.

The sheer pace of change in the ICT sector poses other fundamental challenges –to both industry and universities, particularly on engineering training and education.

“How do we train the next generation of engineers?” asks Wang. “Right now, because of the rapid growth of the industry, there is a noticeable gap between engineering curriculum and industrial research and development needs...for a new ICT engineer seeking his/her first job that’s a huge problem.”

Earlier this year, Wang was awarded funding through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) initiative, which aims to bridge the gap between industry needs and university training.

His project, NSERC CREATE Program in Communications Security, Privacy and Cyberethics, receives $1.65 million over six years.

By working closely with industry partners, this CREATE program provides graduate students and post-doctoral research fellows with up-to-date technical knowledge and hands-on industry experience that will help to improve their job-readiness and develop life-long learning skills essential to remain relevant in a dynamic industry in the long run.

“You need to maintain an interest in new things to remain relevant,” comments Wang, who has witnessed rapid changes in the ICT sector since his university years. “The other thing is to really understand why people are working on these new technologies. What kinds of problems are being solved?”

After coming to Western in 2008 after spending five years in public sector as a research scientist for Communications Research Centre Canada, Wang says he enjoys the excitement and flexibility of a university environment for innovation and education. 

“When you develop a new technology and see it being used, or see a student graduate into a great job it’s very rewarding experience,” he says. “It’s not about your personal achievement, it’s about the positive impact you can have as a university professor on society.”