Energy lab's wireless system secure enough for classified data

The Energy Department’s Savannah River National Laboratory has developed prototype hardware for secure transmission of classified data that has been approved by the National Security Agency.

The prototype, designed in collaboration with NSA and based on Suite B cryptography, is used for radiation air monitoring sensors with nuclear facilities, but could be adapted for uses at other agencies as well as industrial control systems, according to a report on the DOE Pulse website.

Government agencies typically transmit classified data using Type 1 encryption products, which can be expensive and difficult to use.

Suite B cryptography, approved and announced by the NSA as part of its Cryptographic Modernization Program in 2005, is a public interoperable set of crypto tools that include the Advanced Encryption Standard, Secure Hash Algorithm 2 and elliptic curve digital signature and key agreement algorithms. Suite B is part of a program by the government to more rapidly share information, such as with state and local first responders and providing soldiers on the battlefield with the capability to share time-sensitive information securely with non-traditional coalition partners.

While at first glance wireless communications may seem more vulnerable than a wired system, Suite B can prevent spoofing and man-in-the-middle attacks by requiring that each data transmission include an encrypted digital signature. Multiple layers of encryption virtually eliminate the ability to hack the network.

The recently approved hardware includes the component parts of a prototype stand-alone wireless radiation air monitoring system designed by SRNL for use in nuclear facilities, DOE said. The system combines radiation sensing technologies with an ultra-secure short-range wireless network from General Dynamics, which developed components for the wireless system. The prototype has been installed in a field process environment for evaluation and testing, and has been in operation for several months collecting data and undergoing routine source checks.

Radiation monitoring in nuclear facilities is essential for safe operations, and a wireless radiation monitoring system is both more flexible and cost effective, and may prove to be more reliable than the wired system currently in use. DOE said. The cost of running cable into a radioactive process room can be as high as $2,000 per foot; thus, a wireless system could save millions per deployment. 

A wireless sensor can also provide more flexibility, as it can be placed directly in the area of concern, instead of pumping air to the sensors’ location. Currently sensors are placed in clean areas and use a system of pumps, valves and switches to draw an air sample into a radiation detector. A wireless sensor, by contrast, is a stand-alone unit that only requires a 120 volts AC, 60 Hz power source. 

It may also be more reliable as it reduces the number of components needed in the air monitoring system.

The approval of the prototype hardware marks the end of the first phase of a project that began four years ago. The second phase of the project is developing an improved production-ready wireless sensor interface module and is expected to start in fiscal 2013.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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