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Jeanne Quimby

Customer Care

Being a Mom Helps Me Protect Our Communication Infrastructure

Kids can be the source of new ideas

Published: Tuesday, June 6, 2023 - 12:02

As I sat with my 7-year-old son for more than an hour in front of an abstract painting, I saw what appeared to be black paint thrown onto a white canvas.

My son loves abstract paintings. He was explaining to me how much I was missing by just looking at the paint color. I hadn’t seen the energy flowing through the painting. I didn’t see the chaos or the frustration that my son instantly saw, and the artist later confirmed was there.

He saw beyond and could detect and understand the artist’s behavior.

This wasn’t my son’s first foray into abstract paintings. In first grade, he spent more than three months re-creating an alphabet letter into a collage of patchwork patterns and colors at his school. (See if you can guess the alphabet letter; the answer will be given at the end of this article.)

Jeanne Quimby’s 7-year-old son created this painting. His perspective on art helped his mom come up with an idea to protect critical communication infrastructure. Can you guess what letter of the alphabet is depicted here? The answer is at the end of this story. Credit: Courtesy of Jeanne Quimby

My kids show me the things I could easily miss seeing

My children, as I suspect is true for most children, see things differently than my overly educated and highly biased mind. They can see things that I have missed or have simply been trained to overlook as unimportant.

My kids are the reason I came up with our team’s idea for how to detect cybersecurity events on our U.S. critical communication infrastructure.

As scientists, we tend to look closely and deeply at one aspect of something and then ignore others because of specific metrics and reasoning—just like I was doing with the painting my son admired.

There’s a danger with this approach in cybersecurity because hackers are opportunists. They purposely go where you aren’t protecting and detecting. If we miss infrastructure vulnerabilities, hackers can exploit them.

Our communication infrastructure is at risk

Communications infrastructure includes the cell towers and networks that allow our phones, GPSs, and other devices to communicate with each other.

Government and technology organizations are working to protect this infrastructure through encryption and other security measures. Everyone is working to harden the target of wireless communication networks.

However, as we’ve become more dependent on mobile technology, concerns about its security have understandably grown.

Why is securing our communications such a challenge? Defending a network of computers that are connected to each other by ethernet cables is itself quite challenging, but adding wireless communication signals makes them even harder to defend. This is especially true if the security system isn’t monitoring both the interaction between signals coming out of your device and the physical environment.

Imagine you have a security camera in the front of your home. You lock the front door and go on vacation. But you leave the back door unlocked. A would-be thief can use the unlocked door, and you won’t know because you don’t have a camera on the back door.

In my lab, we can now measure the signal not just at one point but at multiple points as it moves through the local communication infrastructure. This allows us to have a better view of what’s happening overall. If there’s a security breach in one part of the infrastructure, we can detect it elsewhere because we have greater visibility overall from measuring these signals. Just as I couldn’t see the meaning in the painting my son admired, we need to be able to see the whole picture—and all the things that picture is trying to tell us—to defend our networks.

That’s exactly what we’re trying to accomplish with our cybersecurity project. We’re measuring the activity in the wireless signals to detect unusual or nefarious signs that the networks we rely on could be compromised. If we see something in one place that’s concerning, we know we need to investigate in case of a vulnerability.

This radio access network (RAN) testbed monitors anomalies in a network and could be used to detect suspicious activity in the telecommunications infrastructure. NIST researcher Jeanne Quimby got the idea for this project from her 7-year-old son’s interest in abstract art. Credit: R. Jacobson/NIST

NIST research is addressing this visibility gap

In our NIST project, Device-level Anomaly Framework (DARE), my team and I are looking at those signals that radiate out from our devices by using a commercial-grade telecommunication network, known as a radio access network (RAN). A local RAN connects devices like smartphones to the cloud. We use this network to measure the signals’ behavior under the effects of different cybersecurity scenarios. We’re trying to capture unusual activity using the signal—which may indicate compromise.

This multidisciplinary team brings many perspectives to this work. We have experts from advanced wireless communications, cybersecurity, and applied mathematics, including machine learning. Measuring the RAN behavior yields statistically complex data. We use those data to build a model that can detect unusual behaviors in our wireless networks.

As with a lot of scientific research, when we started this process we weren’t sure it would work. But we have seen a lot of success. We’re currently writing an academic paper that will allow other researchers to build on our work. We hope our research will also allow government organizations and anyone involved in communications infrastructure to use what we’ve learned to make that infrastructure safer.

Bringing my whole self to work makes me a better scientist

I’ve been quite fortunate to be able to see the world through my kids’ eyes and bring that experience with me to work.

Thanks to this insight from my son’s love of art, I’ve been able to listen to my team, and together we have been able to go beyond the norm to a new level of measurement science.

As a team member pointed out to me, we don’t just assess one or two metrics of our RAN’s testbed behavior. We investigate thousands of factors to achieve a holistic view of the RAN for our anomalous behavior detector.

The goal of our work is to help wireless providers and others create networks that are more secure for all of us.

Through the great support I have received here at NIST, I am able to bring my whole person to work, not only as a scientist but also as a parent.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to be very open about my family responsibilities. My experience with the DARE project is a perfect example of how life outside of work can enhance the work itself. I probably wouldn’t have thought of this approach without my son showing me how to see things from his perspective. For the project to succeed, everyone has had to bring their whole selves—including their unique life experiences—to solving such a significant scientific challenge by looking at the problem from all angles.

Diverse groups of scientists do better work

It is my fervent wish that other young parents, especially young women in science, can also find kinship with their co-workers to have this experience of bringing their whole selves to their science.

I am quite active in the diversity and inclusion initiative here at NIST and in the International Union of Radio Science. I’m trying to encourage more women and people from diverse communities to enter this field, as we all have so many interesting perspectives to bring to the scientific challenges we face. I’m also trying to model for younger people in the field that family responsibilities can not only coexist with a rewarding career but can also enhance your perspective as a researcher.

Just as my team needed diverse talents and perspectives to do our best work, diverse groups of scientists have been shown to publish more frequently and be more likely to develop solutions that benefit more communities. The innovation of this country relies heavily on the work that scientists do, and we need those scientists to represent every part of our society.

The next great idea could be in the mind of someone who never thought they could be a scientist. I want to show them what’s possible, just like my son showed me how to see things in a new way.

Have you guessed the letter of the alphabet in my son’s abstract art? The answer: P.

First published May 10, 2023, on NIST’s Taking Measure blog.


About The Author

Jeanne Quimby’s picture

Jeanne Quimby

Jeanne Quimby is the project leader for the Device-level Anomaly Detection to Forensic Security Electromagnetic Emissions (DARE2FORESEE) project. Her team assesses wireless telecommunication devices for cybersecurity vulnerabilities at the radio access network and the device subcomponent level. She received her master’s degree and Ph.D. from Ohio State University, and a bachelor’s degree from University of California-San Diego. Quimby currently serves as the Charter Women in Radio Science vice chair for the U.S. National Committee for the International Union of Radio Science (USNC-URSI) and the vice chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers P2982/Millimeter-Wave Channel Sounder Verification.