AT&T executive: Security at the foundation of IoT

IoT cellular (pixabay)
One of the keys to sharing data sets is ensuring security for IoT.

Security is a big deal when it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT), and some things—like the connected car—are a matter of life or death.

During its event in San Francisco on Wednesday, AT&T laid out what it’s doing to make IoT more secure, including adding AT&T NetBond connectivity to its cloud-based AT&T Control Center. NetBond enables customers to connect, or “bond,” their VPN to cloud providers.

Security is at the foundation of it all, said Victor Nilson, senior vice president of Big Data at AT&T. “Everything else doesn’t matter if you don’t trust the security,” he told FierceWirelessTech.

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Part of the impetus behind AT&T’s Indigo program stems from the big data division Nilson formed at AT&T in 2013, the goal being to create a method for different entities to share data sets without having to worry about privacy or security issues. The Indigo platform allows for protecting certain information, like users’ location, while still allowing different groups to access anonymous location data.

There are a couple different dimensions to security. One is about authentication: How do you make sure, whether it’s an IoT device or a human being, that they are who they say they are? “We know that’s a very real challenge today,” he said, noting the need to go above and beyond just a user name and password and understanding location, data usage patterns, the type of device and all the different attributes that provide a secure connection. That’s a starting point: trusting the authentication.

The second part is encryption, making sure the network is partitioned so that even though data is being exchanged, the system makes sure it’s isolated to the parties that should have access to it, he said. There’s also permission management and managing the data that’s shared.

Guaranteeing a level of anonymity is part of the process. A patient may want to share his or her entire medical record with a doctor, but only parts of that with a medical research team, for example. “Basically we’re doing operations on the data without exposing the data itself,” he said. It’s not easy to simultaneously protect the privacy of data and share it, but that’s one of the breakthroughs AT&T achieved.

AT&T also revealed earlier this week that it’s in advanced discussions with power companies and others to conduct trials of its Project AirGig in at least two locations by this fall. One location will be in the United States; AT&T CTO John Donovan told USA Today that’s it’s likely to be a power company located in the southern part of the U.S. rather than the north.

RELATED: AT&T in discussions with electric utilities, others about trialing AirGig powerline technology

A lot of experimentation has been ongoing with broadband-over-power lines (BPL), but it never really took off. AT&T’s engineers conducted experiments to deliver BPL more than 10 years ago but ended up shifting their emphasis to millimeter wave technology and became curious about combining millimeter wave and power lines. Some of the early experiments involved transmitting data signals using funnels from a local auto parts store covered with aluminum foil, placed next to unenergized power cables—the tests produced unexpected positive results, creating the foundation of what became Project AirGig.

The radio waves do not go through the utility pole wires but float alongside them. “Basically, we use the power lines as guides to be able to use high-speed data transmissions on the power lines but not actually in the power lines,” Nilson explained.

If it works as it has in the initial lab tests, it could create the capability to serve underserved areas.

AT&T, which has more than 200 patents and patent applications for Project AirGig, developed plastic antennas, a Radio Distributed Antenna System (RDAS), mmWave surface wave launchers and inductive power devices. The antennas provide a relay on the pole along the power lines from pole to pole and while there are metallic elements inside, the plastic provides a lightweight housing that’s weather-proof, low cost and easy to deploy, he said.

The deployment of AT&T’s technology requires talks not only with energy companies but could also involve municipalities—it’s likely to vary from area to area. “I think between the two, there’s really opportunities to leverage those existing relationships and assets and say you know what, this could be a leap frog for everybody.”

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