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Dartmouth launches Wanda, 'magic' tool to protect health data, devices

Researchers will introduce Wanda at the IEEE International Conference on Computer Communications in April.
By Bernie Monegain
10:47 AM
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A small device that has two antennas separated by one-half wavelength and uses radio strength as a communication channel, Wanda is the creation of Dartmouth doctoral student Tim Pierson.

Dartmouth College researchers claim to have developed a "magic wand" they say will prevent hackers from stealing personal data. They've named the digital tool Wanda.

The focus of the work is to secure data at home on patients' computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones and medical devices, officials say.

"Wireless and mobile health technologies have great potential to improve quality and access to care, reduce costs and improve health," said David Kotz, professor of computer science at Dartmouth, in a statement. "But these new technologies, whether in the form of software for smartphones or specialized devices to be worn, carried or applied as needed, also pose risks if they're not designed or configured with security and privacy in mind."

[Also: Malware and hacking pose dangers to medical devices]

As Kotz sees it, one of the main challenges is that most people don't know how to set up and maintain a secure network in their home. That, he says, can lead to compromised or stolen data or potentially allow hackers access to devices such as heart rate monitors or dialysis machines. That's where Wanda comes in.

A small device that has two antennas separated by one-half wavelength and uses radio strength as a communication channel, Wanda is the creation of Dartmouth doctoral student Tim Pierson. The digital tool makes it easy for people to add a new device to their home – or clinic – Wi-Fi network.

Users need only pull the wand from a USB port on the Wi-Fi access point, carry it close to the new device and point it at the device, like a magic wand. The wand securely beams the Wi-Fi network information to the device while preventing anyone nearby from capturing or tampering with the information.

"People love this new approach to connecting devices to Wi-Fi," Piersonn said in a statement. "Many of our volunteer testers remarked on the frustration they've encountered when configuring wireless devices at home and ask when they can take our wand home."

"We anticipate our Wanda technology being useful in a wide variety of applications, not just healthcare, and for a wide range of device management tasks, not just Wi-Fi network configuration," Kotz said.

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Dartmouth researchers will introduce Wanda at the IEEE International Conference on Computer Communications in April.

Wanda is part of a National Science Foundation-funded project led by Dartmouth called "Trustworthy Health and Wellness", or THaW. The program aims to protect patients and their confidentiality as medical records move from paper to electronic form and as care increasingly moves into the home.

THaW is supported by a $10 million, five-year grant from the NSF's Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace program. It includes experts in computer science, business, behavioral health, health policy and healthcare information technology at Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University.

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