Protecting the Internet of Things from cyber attacks

Faculty of Engineering
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Paria Shirani
Professor Paria Shirani is analyzing vulnerabilities within digitally connected smart devices and developing security measures against debilitating cyber-attacks.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a system made up of devices or machines that share data across networks simultaneously through a central hub without sensor interference. These devices can include vehicles, lighting systems, appliances, and thermostats. However, problems can arise when digital systems come under attack, and this is due to the limited protections imbedded within critical infrastructure.

Due to their interconnected nature, critical infrastructure and smart cities are vulnerable to cyber attacks that have the power to disrupt entire countries. One devastating example is the destruction caused by Industroyer malware, which wreaked havoc on Ukraine’s power generation and distribution systems in 2016, causing a massive outage throughout that country. Given that they can also take down water and gas distribution systems, these attacks run the risk of paralyzing entire nations.

Paria Shirani, an assistant professor at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, explains that due to "rapid growth on the Internet of Things, interconnecting them and deploying these devices almost everywhere increases the attack surface and provides more opportunities for the attackers to compromise critical infrastructures." No stranger to the world of cybersecurity, Professor Paria Shirani’s research stretches into analyzing malware, identifying malicious actors through code fingerprinting, enhancing IoT security, researching specific vulnerabilities, and generating intelligence about threats. Her underlying goal is to understand the vulnerabilities within IoT software and to address these concerns to protect lives and resources.

“We are currently working to analyze the security of digital systems, such as smart grids and smart cities, and propose automated solutions to detect and prevent possible attacks."

Learning how to reduce the risk of cyber attacks

“As a community, we have been ignoring the importance of cybersecurity for a long time,” says Shirani. “I think that we are now at a very crucial time where we must pay special attention to cybersecurity before it becomes too late; otherwise, we might need to pay dearly."

But users can reduce the risk of cyber attacks by taking basic training on cybersecurity to learn about the tactics attackers commonly use and how to protect their systems. Users who are educated on cybersecurity, including how to enact effective password policies, protect against phishing attacks, and resist social engineering, are generally more secure and protected against cyber attacks.

Cybersecurity training is more accessible than ever, with courses available to students and to industry leaders looking for a space to practise their defences against cyber attacks. "My advice to prospective cybersecurity students would be to first strengthen their basic and advanced knowledge of their primary domain,” says Shirani. “Consequently, they can get involved with a research group in cybersecurity and conduct hands-on research on their interested topics within cybersecurity.”

About Paria Shirani

Paria Shirani is an assistant professor at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Ottawa. Prior to joining the University in 2022, she was an assistant professor at the Department of Computer Science at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University). Previously, she was an NSERC postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), USA. Paria Shirani earned her PhD degree in information systems engineering at Concordia University, during which she was awarded an FRQNT doctoral scholarship.