Charles D. McCrary Institute tasked with developing next-generation technologies for securing the nation’s cyber infrastructure

Published: January 04, 2017
Updated: January 11, 2017
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As the world we live in continues to evolve and remarkable technological advancements drive society forward, Auburn University's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering is doing its part to protect the security of our infrastructure through the establishment of the Charles D. McCrary Institute.

The institute focuses on several areas of key research and is tasked with developing next-generation technologies aimed at improving the security and operation of the nation's infrastructure.

"Security of our critical infrastructure will be among the top research areas at the McCrary Institute," stated Anthony Skjellum, newly appointed as the founding director of the institute. "Through an understanding of how to safeguard complex cyber infrastructure, such as computing networks, and sensors used in the energy, chemical and manufacturing sectors, researchers will learn how to better design and protect these systems from threats in the future."

One area of emphasis for researchers involves helping design and develop infrastructure systems that can continue normal operation, even when partially compromised. Forging long-term partnerships with peer universities, national laboratories, government agencies and industry leaders in the private sector, researchers will gain knowledge in strengthening and better protecting cyber systems.

Another area the institute aims to address is ensuring the security and reliability of the nation's power grid. Research in this area will examine how consumers and corporations can find ways to reduce power, increase energy efficiency and achieve economic savings.

In addition, the institute is leveraging Auburn's expertise in big data analytics by examining how data from business can be optimized and interpreted. The goal is to allow employees to analyze and interpret data remotely and disseminate that information safely and securely across the globe.

Strengthening the nation's defense systems is another research area the institute is closely studying. Research will include accurately predicting the reliability of defense systems under cyber threats, such as missiles, by improving the hardware and software design and lifecycle strategies used to build our tactical system network.

Another research area that will be studied involves examining psycho-social cyber and institutional security. Research in this area will focus on the human threats to an organization, including interactions, motivations and strategies that may lead to an attack to an organization by an insider breach. By studying the design of organizational processes employees are expected to follow, researchers can better predict, and therefore prevent, human threats to institutional security.

The institute will also conduct research in several of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors defined by the Department of Homeland Security, including cyber security as it relates to the Internet of Things, or IoT. This includes a number of traditional digital devices, but the institute is also interested in studying how and why IoT devices including home automation systems, HVAC units and automobile electronics can fall victim to hacker attacks. The more information that is passed back and forth within the network, the greater the chances for security to be compromised.

In fact, a Hewlett Packard enterprise survey concluded that 70 percent of the most commonly used IoT devices contained vulnerabilities. The McCrary Institute strives to address this concern through the creation of more secure cloud and mobile architectures, as well as developing a more protective cyber operational environment.

"This is an exciting time to work and study at the College of Engineering," Skjellum said. "Through the McCrary Institute, Auburn will become a leader in addressing the needs of our state and country in the areas of our infrastructure and cyber systems."

However, improving the cyber security systems is not the only major research emphasis the institute is taking on. It will also address methods of advancing responsible natural resource development and conservation through state-of-the-art, peer-reviewed research and outreach. This focus relates to conservation and management of forested landscapes and wildlife habitat for socioeconomic and environmental benefits, known as natural capital. Combining efforts with Auburn University's School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, a founding partner of the institute, researchers will determine how to conserve our natural resources through urban expansion and shifts in climate.

"To collaborate with industry experts and peer institutions to achieve a collective goal is what the McCrary Institute represents," Skjellum said. "I look forward to elevating this institute on a national scale and providing significant contributions to the knowledge and expertise necessary to ensure our nation's safety."

An advisory council has been formed that includes experts in academia and industry. This council will work toward fostering research collaborations that address the security needs of our state, region and nation.

"With Dr. Skjellum's outstanding credentials and national profile in cyber systems research, we are poised to advance the institute's mission to the highest level," said Christopher Roberts, dean of engineering. "The McCrary Institute will be part of the movement toward development of the next generation of advanced technologies."

The McCrary Institute was founded in 2015 through a generous donation by the Alabama Power Foundation in honor of Charles D. McCrary, who culminated a 40-year career with Alabama Power Co. as its president. A 1973 graduate in mechanical engineering, he has remained deeply devoted to the advancement of Auburn University and currently serves on the institution's board of trustees.

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