How Wireless Networks Impact Security
Tuesday, May 06, 2014 | Comments

Commercial wireless systems, protocols and their adoption rates are accelerating to irreversibly dominate our communications infrastructure and lifestyle and reshape our industrial base. Protocols such as Long Term Evolution (LTE), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee and satellite data links are now part of every industry and every component, and we view them as required features in our cars, airplanes, ships, manufacturing floors, utilities, work environment and homes. Persistent and mobile data to the user is now demanded even in the most labor intensive and remote environments.

This trend is evident, not only in the United States, but also in developing countries in Africa and Asia where the penetration of the Internet often skipped the wired infrastructure and proceeded directly to mobile data. This has created opportunities for new business and expanded national and international markets, enabling infrastructure to function faster and opening new pathways for scientific discovery and technical innovation. Moving swiftly to a more integrated approach with these interdependent systems to maintain physical, cyber and network security is essential to ensure technology innovations, continued economic expansion and homeland security.

Network Interdependencies

Some examples of wireless interdependencies that affect cyber security, functional reliability and competing demand loads for spectrum and bandwidth are:

• Data links from programmable logic controllers in remote electrical substations and gas and water storage facilities, which permit better resource management

• Wireless smart meters, which permit remote reading of electric and gas meters, reducing distribution costs

• LTE integration with smart grid communications to manage electricity distribution, load and bidirectional energy flow

• Oil and gas production and distribution networks

• Transportation truck scheduling and supply tracking

• Smartphone-based applications for physical security (electronic keys, cameras)

• Wireless handhelds and smartphones for industrial sensor calibration and maintenance

• Wireless tablet-based terminals for managing, maintaining and isolating faults in generating plants


Blended Attacks

Vulnerabilities and resiliency risks for blended cyber and physical attacks or complex failures include the following examples:

• Physical security failures of wireless or cellular communications to security cameras, perimeter detectors and security response forces

• Cyber security of new smartphone applications that control or calibrate critical components

• Security of gateways between commercial and government first responder networks with smart devices that can roam between the networks and applications that provide assured communications coverage

• Challenges with utilities and government networks that are deployed within critical operations or physical functions to keep pace with cyber security updates

• Security updates occasionally breaking critical applications. Hence, large enterprise systems delay the implementation of new patches and updates until they are tested within a controlled environment and affected applications can be fixed. This can significantly delay the implementation of such updates and increases the vulnerability of these systems to cyber-attacks

• “Targeting” attacks in which an intelligent adversary (terrorist or criminal) plans their activity based on open source collection of key engineering and interdependency information to maximize the impact to a target


Meanwhile, the paradigm of spectrum sharing is beginning to emerge. A simple example is the development of TV white space systems to use television frequencies for fixed access in areas where they are unused. More sophisticated, dynamic techniques of spectrum sharing are also being proposed. To this end, a consortium called the Spectrum Sharing Group was announced in Washington, D.C., March 31, consisting of academia, federal and private sector partners. The federal government’s adoption of spectrum sharing has been mandated by presidential directive with the adoption of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report on spectrum sharing. It is believed that next generations of wireless communications technology will embed spectrum sharing as part of their protocols.

The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has been monitoring and verifying the cyber security of critical infrastructures for several years, as well as providing malware analysis, threat analysis, fly-away team support and mitigation services at times of attack. In light of the increasing proliferation of wireless in all critical infrastructures, INL is researching secure wireless technologies and spectrum sharing. INL would also work with the wireless industry to keep critical national systems safe, to preserve the benefits of rapid innovation and ensure continued economic expansion from this ubiquitous technology.

For more information on the cyber threats to wireless communications, see “Wireless Adds Vulnerability to Cyber Threats” from the May issue of MissionCritical Communications magazine.



Wayne Austad is the director of Idaho National Laboratory’s (INL) Cyber-Physical Threat Analysis Center, which analyzes the evolving threat landscape to our nation’s most critical infrastructures. Previously, he was the program manager for Cyber Security research and development (R&D) at INL. Email comments to

Daniel Devasirvatham is the director of the INL Wireless National User Facility (WNUF), a Department of Energy sponsored innovation center for national wireless communications challenges. Email comments to

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On 1/31/17, Haris Qadeer said:
Well the problem is that people don't understand the importance of a secure network and most of the consumers don't even upgrade their hardware and the passwords from time to time, which makes their wireless networks vulnerable to attacks and cyber threats.

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