Student Researchers Ask: How Smart is Smart Home Security?

News Story categories: Computer Science Cybersecurity Student Spotlight
Seth Ravenstahl, Jordan Foster, and Professor John McManus stading in front of a white board

Randolph-Macon College students Seth Ravenstahl ’20 and Jordan Foster ’20 are spending the summer researching a topic that is top-of-mind for many: smart home security.

In conjunction with RMC’s Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, the two—both of whom are computer science majors and cybersecurity minors—are working together on their project, Evaluating and Improving Smart Home Security.

Under the guidance of Computer Science Professor John McManus ’84, Ravenstahl and Foster, both of whom play for the Yellow Jacket football team, use tools designed for security testing to monitor and evaluate the security of multiple devices (such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and NEST Home Security System), which are connected to a private internet network on campus. Their goal? To learn more about network security; find vulnerabilities in the security of the devices they are working with; and create ways to improve the security of devices.

Research, Brainstorming, Hands-on Training
With little prior knowledge about smart home security, Ravenstahl and Foster experience jam-packed days as they read, research, meet with McManus, and brainstorm. With the help of textbooks and problem-solving exercises, the two began their research journey by learning the basics of cybersecurity, hacking and smart home security.

“We plan to try and hack into several common smart home devices, from an Alexa device (a digital personal assistant) to home security cameras,” says Ravenstahl. “We want to see if we can come up with ways to improve smart home security, whether by finding things that users can do or by improving the internal security of devices.”

Ethical Hacking
McManus emphasizes that ethics is an integral part of the cybersecurity major.

“Our cybersecurity students are required to take an ethics course,” says McManus. “When students hack into systems, they do so ethically—always with a focus on finding issues before malicious hackers do. The students learn to identify vulnerabilities in systems and then clearly communicate the risks and potential solutions to their clients. Our focus on client communications prepares our students to explain complex technical issues in terms a client can understand. We work closely with RMC’s ITS department to provide a safe environment for our students to learn to ethically apply the same tools that malicious hackers use.”

Each day, Ravenstahl and Foster meet with Professor McManus to bounce ideas off one another.

“Professor McManus is very knowledgeable, and he encourages us to work independently and experiment with ideas,” says Foster. “At the same time, he is always available for guidance or direction if we need it. Thanks to SURF, I’m learning a lot about cybersecurity. I want to learn as much as possible about the software that we use, the software that companies use to protect their devices, and where both are headed in the future.”

Foster says, “The SURF program allows me to work with a mentor and partner who have similar interests, and it gives me to opportunity to see research being conducted by students from other majors.”

McManus looks forward to an interesting summer.

“I am excited to have Jordan and Seth working in the lab this summer,” he says. “They are bright, motivated and creative. SURF provides them an opportunity to do things beyond what is covered in lectures and lab exercises.”

Under McManus’ guidance, Ravenstahl and Foster are developing ethical hacking skills using Kali Linux, a toolset used by cybersecurity professionals. Thanks to SURF, they are developing critical cybersecurity skills as they help McManus test the tools and techniques that will be used in Randolph-Macon’s cybersecurity lab courses.

“Jordan and Seth are the pathfinders for RMC’s new cybersecurity program,” says McManus. 

The SURF Program
The SURF program was established in 1995 through a generous endowment made by Ben Schapiro ’64 and his wife, Peggy Schapiro. The Schapiros continue to support this program, which promotes scholarly undergraduate research by students in all disciplines. Ben Schapiro has served on a number of RMC committees, including the Board of Trustees and the Society of Alumni.

In order to participate in the program, students write proposals and apply for grant money to fund their research. SURF students receive a stipend and room and board, and the results of their research are presented at the annual SURF Symposium and on Research Day. Many SURF participants have presented their research throughout the United States and internationally, and some have published their work. The SURF program is co-directed by Art History Professor Evie Terrono and Chemistry Professor Serge Schreiner.