By Megan Wagner, MH ’16
Shreenidhi Ayinala had an interest in technology from a young age. In elementary school, she was exploring Scratch and basic coding. In eighth grade, she became involved in robotics, and she has studied computer science all four years of high school.
Now a senior at Heritage High School in the Frisco Independent School District north of Dallas, she is already making an impact in the world of cybersecurity. As a junior she was accepted into the district’s Independent Study and Mentorship (ISM) program, which has enabled her to further explore her interest in cybersecurity. Her passion for cybersecurity has shown her that she is “able to give back.”
When Ayinala reapplied for ISM for her senior year, she knew she wanted to look more at the question, “How does technology affect people?” She found UD’s Associate Professor of Cybersecurity Renita Murimi, Ph.D., CISSP, on LinkedIn and contacted her, asking if she would consider being her ISM mentor for the school year. Murimi gladly accepted. Ayinala said of Murimi, “She is so giving of her time, encouraging and responsive.” She added, “Dr. Murimi was patient and also gave me space to think.”
The two have held all their meetings over Zoom this year. At first, they came together with their initial ideas and collaborated about what to focus their energy and research on, ultimately landing on the nature of smart homes. In beginning their research, the two decided to open with the question, “What do we consider home?” They defined a home as “an emotional investment, a retreat, a safe space.” Ayinala added, “A home is where an individual can find comfort, be themself and not worry. It provides privacy, one’s own space and familiarity.”
This definition led to the question: What does a smart home mean, then? It is a home with smart devices that collect data and connect to the internet and often to other devices. Smart homes can include smart photo frames, smart light bulbs, smart refrigerators, Ring doorbells, smart thermostats and baby monitors, and the list continues. Murimi pointed out that throughout history, homes have had “technology and tools appropriate to the time. Computers, etc., are our tools. There are smart devices in so many categories of a home today — salt shakers and cat litter boxes, for example.”
They followed up their initial question by contemplating, “What if this information is hacked?” Together they looked into the psychology of those impacted by hacks and breaches, which typically result in emotional distress. The fields of sociology and anthropology are also incorporated into their study. The theory of territoriality proposed by Douglas Porteous in 1976 provided the foundation for their research. Porteous proposed the idea that “individuals exert jurisdiction over [their] personal space.” Murimi added, “A home is an extension of territoriality.”
“Home is supposed to provide identity, security and stimulation,” explained Murimi. She added, “Smart homes should give us these things. We ought to have the ability to choose what data to share.” Ayinala added, “However, if security is taken away from an individual, their experience of home is altered.” Boundaries are erased through a breach or hacking. The resident may struggle with their sense of security and identity. Hacking and breaches of smart devices occur due to a number of reasons, but they fall into three main categories: vulnerable sensors, vulnerability to malware, and faulty data protection methods. With the increased use of these devices in smart homes also comes a rise in attacks on these devices.
Murimi explained, “Cybersecurity need not just be technical. Technology must work well with people. How do these devices help us — not replace us?”
Ayinala and Murimi’s partnership this year has proven a successful one. Murimi remarked on the strengths of her young mentee: “Shreenidhi is a good student and a good collaborator. She is involved and excels.” Murimi explained that Ayinala is already invested in the field of cybersecurity and is driven to continue her contributions. “In her first ISM project, she had worked with someone from industry, and she wanted a different angle in her second year.”
Two to three times a week Ayinala commutes to another campus for her cybersecurity class. Kip Bledsoe, the cybersecurity and CISCO networking teacher at Frisco’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Center, has had Ayinala in class this year. He describes her as “an amazing young girl, intelligent and mature.” He also described her as helpful: She had an opportunity to present to middle school students for a career day, and she will be presenting to retired teachers to provide pointers on technology and how to avoid hacking attempts. Bledsoe said, “She is always volunteering.”
The ISM teacher for Heritage High School and Memorial High School, Matthew Pirtle, has been delighted to have Ayinala in his program for two years: “She has been a model student and an excellent example to her classmates.” Pirtle described the ISM class as “an upper-level elective for high-performing juniors and seniors in which they are allowed to pursue a career path of interest. Students develop interpersonal and presentation skills that are applied by contacting, interviewing and meeting with professionals in their chosen field to learn more about their desired profession.”
He added, “In the class, students create an original work project in which they showcase in-depth research pertaining to their topic and deliver a 20- to 25-minute talk that should rival a presentation you would see in a professional environment.” Nearly 500 Frisco ISD students from across the district are enrolled in the program, to explore a wide range of topics, from medicine, law, engineering and other STEM-related fields, to marketing, business, finance, fashion, writing and cinematography.
Among the impressive students producing such projects, Pirtle said, Shreenidhi stands out as a leader; she was “personally selected as a leader for ISM II, where she is pursuing her interest in cybersecurity with dedication, initiative and focus. Shreenidhi consistently models excellent behavior, works well with others, and is generous in sharing her knowledge with classmates.” Pirtle added that Shreenidhi is “one of the most enjoyable students I have had in my tenure in education. She will do great things in and beyond ISM.”
Ayinala and Murimi’s paper titled “On a Territorial Notion of a Smart Home” was accepted into an interdisciplinary conference in February. They will present it at ACM SIGSAC’s first International Workshop on Cybersecurity and Social Sciences, which will be held virtually on May 30. The conference is co-located with ACM ASIACCS 2022, which will meet in person in Nagasaki, Japan.
Also in May, Ayinala will not only compete in the national competition for Business Professionals of America, but she will graduate from high school. She recently committed to attend the University of Maryland College Park in the fall. Her future possibilities are endless, and she is certain of her path within the field of cybersecurity. She thanks Murimi, her teachers and others who have encouraged her along the way.