Headshot of Alex Marder.
Alex Marder

Supported by a $5 million Convergence Accelerator grant from the National Science Foundation, a Johns Hopkins computer scientist is working to make the federal government’s communication on 5G networks safer and more secure.

Alex Marder, an assistant professor of computer science and a member of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Assured Autonomy, is leading a multidisciplinary team in developing the Automated Verification of Internet Data-paths system. AVOID uses a two-pronged approach, identifying potentially harmful base stations around the world to protect the federal government from malicious actors and to ensure that adversary-controlled networks cannot compromise federal government communications.

The goal of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program is to improve 5G end-device infrastructure to give military, government, and other critical infrastructure operators the ability to operate through public 5G networks while maintaining security and resilience requirements. Marder was previously the recipient of an NSF Phase I Convergence Accelerator grant that totaled approximately $750,000, aimed at using commercial 5G networks for secure and resilient communication.

“We are creating the capability to assess and avoid risks in the 5G communications infrastructure; this capability will hopefully help protect warfighters and keep military communications out of the hands of our adversaries,” says Marder. “Receiving a Phase II award demonstrates excitement about our research direction and a belief that our interdisciplinary team can achieve these ambitious goals.”

The federal government hopes to leverage what will end up being nearly ubiquitous commercial 5G networks. However, relying on unknown and untrusted communications infrastructure has the potential to expose communications to adversaries, explains Marder.

Marder’s AVOID system will not only recognize threats in 5G wireless networks and the internet at large, but it will also shift communications to only benign commercial infrastructure—such as mainstream, widely used commercial platforms and services, rather than more vulnerable niche options—thus circumventing the threat. The system will not require modifications to existing applications or networks, and the federal government will not have to rely on cooperation from third-party networks.

“In Phase I, we demonstrated proofs of concept of AVOID components, and in Phase II we will build on this foundation to create a more robust, automated, and comprehensive solution,” explains Marder. “In fact, we hope that our work in Phase II will have applications beyond DOD’s 5G communications. AVOID could ultimately allow businesses, cloud providers, and people around the world to avoid nation-state surveillance.”