A ‘magic wand’ to simplify network setup and improve security

February 24, 2016

Dartmouth College Professor David Kotz demonstrates a commercial prototype of “Wanda” imparting information such as the network name and password of a WiFi access point onto a blood pressure monitor (credit: Dartmouth College)

Ever just want to wave a magic wand instead of dealing with a complex home network setup?

Well, Dartmouth College computer science professor David Kotz has figured out how to do just that. Called “Wanda,” it’s a small rod that makes it simple to link a new device (such as a blood-pressure meter or smartphone) to a WiFi network by just pointing the rod at the device.

The system is part of a National Science Foundation-funded project led by Dartmouth called “Trustworthy Health and Wellness” aimed at protecting patients and their confidentiality as medical records move from paper to electronic form and as health care increasingly moves out of doctors’ offices and hospitals and into the home.

Kotz says wireless and mobile health technologies have great potential to improve quality and access to care, reduce costs and improve health, “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.”

Setting up a secure network at home

Most people don’t know how to set up and maintain a secure network in their home, which can lead to compromised or stolen data or potentially allow hackers access to critical devices such as heart rate monitors or dialysis machines.

There are three basic operations when bringing a new mobile device into the home, workplace or clinic: configure the device to join the wireless local-area network (such as enter a Wi-Fi SSID and password); partner the device with other nearby devices so they can work together; and configure the device so it connects to the relevant individual or organizational account in the cloud.

“Wanda” is a small hardware device with two antennas. To add a new device to their home (or clinic) Wi-Fi network, users simply 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. Within a few seconds, the wand securely beams the secret Wi-Fi network information to the device.*

The same method can be used to transfer any information from the wand to the new device without anyone nearby capturing the secrets or tampering with the information.

Kotz says the technology could be useful for a wide range of device management tasks and in a wide variety of applications in addition to healthcare.

Supported by a $10-million, five-year grant from the NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace program, the Frontier-scale project 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 (UIUC), the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University.

Wanda will be presented at the IEEE International Conference on Computer Communications in April.

* Wanda builds on pioneering work done by Cai et al. in  “Good neighbor: Ad hoc pairing of nearby wireless devices by multiple antennas” in NDSS, 2011). It determines when it is in close proximity to another transmitting device by measuring the difference in received  signal  strength on the  two antennas.

Abstract of Wanda: securely introducing mobile devices

Nearly every setting is increasingly populated with wireless and mobile devices – whether appliances in a home, medical devices in a health clinic, sensors in an industrial setting, or devices in an office or school. There are three fundamental operations when bringing a new device into any of these settings: (1) to configure the device to join the wireless local-area network, (2) to partner the device with other nearby devices so they can work together, and (3) to configure the device so it connects to the relevant individual or organizational account in the cloud. The challenge is to accomplish all three goals simply, securely, and consistent with user intent. We present a novel approach we call Wanda – a ‘magic wand’ that accomplishes all three of the above goals – and evaluate a prototype implementation.


  • Timothy J. Pierson, Xiaohui Liang, Ronald Peterson, and David Kotz. Wanda: securely introducing mobile devices. Proceedings of IEEE International Conference on Computer Communications (INFOCOM), April, 2016. (In Press)