Newswise — The increasing development and use of cyber-physical systems, such as the smart grid, smart buildings, mobile robots and medical device networks, has led to a heightened need for improved measures to protect data privacy. Minghui Zhu, associate professor of electrical engineering, has been awarded a five-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER Award to develop solutions that promote privacy while allowing cyber-physical systems to successfully accomplish control tasks.

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program recognizes the potential of early-career faculty to serve as academic role models in research and education.

“Security and privacy of cyber-physical systems is an emerging research area in the control communities,” Zhu said. “This award will provide the necessary foundational support for me to explore this new and exciting area.”

A cyber-physical system integrates an information communications technology system — the cyber aspect — with a physical system, such as a drone, a self-driving car or a power system. A report by General Electric (GE) estimates that innovations of cyber-physical systems could find direct applications in sectors currently accounting for more than $32.3 trillion in economic activities, and with the potential to grow to $82 trillion by 2025 — about one half of the global economy.

As cyber-physical systems become more commonplace and play an increasingly important role in our daily life, concerns about privacy are becoming more prevalent.

“In occupancy-based heating, ventilation and air conditioning control systems, location traces of individual occupants can be inferred from occupancy data with auxiliary information such as office directories and user mobility patterns,” Zhu said. “The contextual information attached to location traces reveals much about individuals’ habits, interests, activities and relationships.”

Zhu also noted that in the smart grid, appliance usage patterns can be inferred from energy-use information stored at smart meters with supplementary information of load signature libraries, and such usage patterns could expose customers’ habits and behaviors.

“Privacy concerns for the cyber side of the equation are not new,” Zhu said. “Privacy of information communications technology systems has been extensively studied in the computer science communities. But now we’re considering privacy problems within the new context where the cyber space and the physical world are combined and interacting with each other.”

According to Zhu, the presence of physical systems may disable existing methods for cybersecurity to secure cyber-physical systems. For example, most existing techniques only apply to static data sources. In contrast, released data of a cyber-physical system is being generated by its physical components continually in real time, posing a different set of security threats that do not apply to static data.

Zhu conducted preliminary research on privacy concerns in cyber-physical systems with the help of grants from NSF, the Army Research Office, the National Security Agency and the Department of Energy. He recently published a review paper on his preliminary findings. For this CAREER project, he will work with collaborators in the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, GE Research, Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratory and Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory to promote technology transfer and perform outreach activities. Additionally, he will work with the Penn State Center for Science and the Schools on K-12 education.

“It is my honor to receive this award,” Zhu said. “I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my research students for their hard work, as well as my collaborators and mentors for their invaluable support during my early career.”

Zhu joined Penn State in 2013. His research interests lie in distributed control and decision-making of multiagent networks and cyber-physical systems with applications in security, mobile robotic networks and the smart grid.