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SMCP: a Secure Mobile Crowdsensing Protocol for fog-based applications


The possibility of performing complex data analysis through sets of cooperating personal smart devices has recently encouraged the definition of new distributed computing paradigms. The general idea behind these approaches is to move early analysis towards the edge of the network, while relying on other intermediate (fog) or remote (cloud) devices for computations of increasing complexity. Unfortunately, because both of their distributed nature and high degree of modularity, edge-fog-cloud computing systems are particularly prone to cyber security attacks that can be performed against every element of the infrastructure. In order to address this issue, in this paper we present SMCP, a Secure Mobile Crowdsensing Protocol for fog-based applications that exploit lightweight encryption techniques that are particularly suited for low-power mobile edge devices. In order to assess the performance of the proposed security mechanisms, we consider as case study a distributed human activity recognition scenario in which machine learning algorithms are performed by users’ personal smart devices at the edge and fog layers. The functionalities provided by SMCP have been directly compared with two state-of-the-art security protocols. Results show that our approach allows to achieve a higher degree of security while maintaining a low computational cost.


In recent years, the availability of an ever increasing number of heterogeneous smart devices has changed everyday life as only few other technologies has been able to do in the past.

The diffusion of the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as the spreading of user’s personal devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and, more recently, smartwatches or other wristband devices, have enabled new people-centric sensing paradigms in which raw data captured by on board sensors can be analyzed to infer higher-level knowledge. Participatory sensing [1] and mobile crowdsensing [2], for instance, are two common strategies in which the devices owned by a community allow to understand, or even predict, relevant phenomena [3].

In this context, novel distributed computing paradigms have been proposed to develop pervasive systems in which a number of different devices can easily cooperate, proportionally to their computational capabilities and power requirements, in the accomplishment of complex tasks. The earliest solution, known as cloud computing, relied on a remote computing and storage infrastructure aimed at providing services according to predefined models, such as Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). The limitation of this approach has quickly became clear since data captured by the edge of the network needed to be continuously transferred to the cloud in order to be processed, making this solution not suitable for real-time applications. As a consequence, edge computing and fog computing paradigms have been proposed with the aim of moving part of the computations towards the boundary of the network. A relevant survey of edge and fog computing architectures, applications, and research issues in the context of IoT is presented in [4].

In this paper we address the scenario of distributed crowdsensing, and we focus on the design of a secure fog-based architecture, whose edge layer consists of cheap wearable devices with limited computational resources, e.g., wrist-worn smart devices. Such an architecture can be adopted to support a number of applications; for instance, wrist-worn devices could be efficiently used to obtain data about the environmental conditions, the weather, or the urban mobility/traffic congestion in a certain area. Nevertheless, they are not particularly suitable for performing intensive computations, nor to continuously transfer data over the network. These tasks, instead, can be properly accomplished by other devices that are close to the users, e.g., their smartphones or laptop computers. These (fog) units are characterized by a greater computing power and are usually provided with network interfaces that allow them to communicate in real-time with remote (cloud) data centers.

In such a scenario, given the central role of people in the sensing process, preserving sensitive information is mandatory. Hence, a comprehensive security mechanism needs to be designed to protect both data stored on the physical devices and messages exchanged within the fog architecture. Moreover, given the low computation capability and the high power consumption of mobile devices, the overhead of making the system secure must be very low.

According to these requirements, we present SMCP, a Secure Mobile Crowdsensing Protocol that exploits two lightweight encryption techniques, i.e., Elliptic-Curve Cryptography and Extended Triple Diffie–Hellman Key Agreement, that are particularly suited for low-power mobile devices.

As compared to existing works, SMCP allows to secure five phases that are common to many crowdsensing systems in which a fog-based approach is adopted; namely, the fog and edge enrollment phases allow edge and fog devices to mutually prove their identity and to certify their legitimacy within the system; the key agreement makes the two parties able to build a secure communication channel; during the edge-fog communication phase the messages exchanged to support the crowdsensing algorithm are protected from external attacks; finally, the fog-cloud communication allows to maintain the overall models created by the system.

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of the proposed protocol we considered as case study a fog-based Human Activity Recognition (HAR) framework that exploits machine learning algorithms to detect and classify complex activities performed by users wearing a personal smart device. The functionalities provided by SMCP have been firstly compared with other state-of-the-art schemes; then, experimental analysis has focused on direct comparison with two similar security protocols. Results show that SMCP allows to achieve a higher degree of security while maintaining a low computational cost.

The main contributions of this work are as follows. The first is the definition of a novel, lightweight, secure message exchange protocol (SMCP) that covers all the tasks commonly required by a general fog-based crowdsensing application. The second contribution is the adoption and performance evaluation of such a protocol on a real case study in which edge/fog devices are exploited to perform human activity recognition. The third contribution is a comparative analysis of SMCP and two state-of-the-art security protocols, whose results show that SMCP allows to achieve a higher degree of security while maintaining a low computational cost.

The remainder of the paper is organized as follows: related works are outlined in section "Related work". The characteristics of a fog-based architecture for mobile crowdsensing, and the related security requirements are discussed in section "Fog-based architecture for mobile crowdsensing" and section "Requirements and tools for lightweight security", respectively. Section  "SMCP: a Secure Mobile Crowdsensing Protocol" describes the preliminary secure enrollment phases provided by SMCP, while its full application in the context of a distributed HAR system is presented in section "Sample Case: secure message exchange for HAR". Experimental results are analyzed in section "Experimental analysis": section "SMCP: performance analysis" provides an assessment of SMCP in terms of message preparation time and size, while a comparative analysis with two other security protocols is discussed in section "SMCP: comparison with SAKA and FIRF protocols". Conclusions follow in section "Conclusion".

Related work

Sensor-based crowdsensing has been widely addressed in the literature because of its suitability for different application scenarios. Simple mobile participatory sensing applications can be developed by relying on existing software libraries, such as the Google Activity Recognition APIs and the iOS Core Motion framework. However, when the goal is to perform more intensive tasks, such as real-time human activity recognition, many works highlighted the need for frameworks in which multiple devices, e.g., mobile devices with limited resources, are able to cooperate with each other. In this context, fog computing paradigm [5] can be adopted to realize well-performing systems that are able to process large amounts of data locally, and timely. The general idea behind a fog-based monitoring system is to distribute data collection, analysis, and storage tasks among different devices located at distinct logic levels. Due to the limited computational capabilities and heterogeneity of fog devices, as well as the dynamic nature and unpredictability of fog environments, task allocation is a challenging problem that has been widely addressed in the literature [6]. In [7], for instance, task scheduling is performed by means of an efficient moth-flame optimization algorithm that guarantees quality of service in fog-based cyber-physical systems.

Many works have adopted fog-based approaches to support distributed sensing and processing. CARDAP [8], for instance, is a data analytics platform aimed at supporting mobile crowd-sensing applications in a smart city. The system proposed in [9] relies on a fog-based architecture to realize the different components of an Ambient Intelligence (AmI) system aimed to achieve energy efficiency in smart buildings. In [10], Internet Connected Objects (ICOs) are used at the edge of the network to measure air quality, users’ movements, and sounds, while user smartphones are exploited as intermediate gateways. In [11], a fog-based platform designed to detect users’ falls in a e-health scenario is described, while a comprehensive review of fog-based IoT systems and technologies for healthcare is presented in [12]. Beside being the core of the application-oriented solutions discussed so far, machine learning techniques are also commonly used to deal with technical aspects of fog computing, such as efficient resource management, latency and energy consumption reduction [13], as well as modeling network traffic. An exhaustive analysis of machine learning in the context of fog computing is proposed in [14].

The high degree of modularity of fog systems make them also prone to cyber security attacks that can be performed against every element of the infrastructure [15, 16]. Nevertheless, most of the works presenting novel fog-based applications are focused on the description of the edge-fog-cloud infrastructure and the corresponding service deployment; as a consequence, in such papers security issues are frequently omitted or ignored. Other works presented ad-hoc security schemes that cover some specific threats only; then, many challenges still remain open [17]. For instance, two important security issues concern authentication and trust between the different entities that cooperate within a fog network.

Whereas authentication can be efficiently achieved through soft and behavioral biometrics [18], as well as by implementing lightweight schemes [19] that meet the low computational capabilities of edge/fog devices, ensuring trust in a dynamic fog environment is usually harder because the behavior of mobile nodes is likely to change over time. In [20], authors describe a Secure Fog-based Communication Scheme (SFCS) to ensure trust between edge devices and fog devices via a novel session key agreement. Such a protocol uses ECC encryption, Discrete Logarithm Problem and bilinear pairing allowing to establish the session key without extra-parameters. Octopus [21] is an authentication scheme for fog-based architectures that allows any edge device and fog device to mutually authenticate each other by means of a long-lived secret key, and symmetric encryption. The authors of [22] propose a forwarding scheme for mobile IoT devices in which the trustworthiness of the nodes is estimated according to their service degree, and then used to build reliable communities. Other works [20, 21] address only secure edge-fog communications, without considering the security issues of fog-cloud data transmission.

Authentication and trust are strictly connected to safeguarding of data; conversely, one of the most important requirements for any application that exploits people’s participation is privacy, i.e, safeguarding of user information. In [23], for instance, the authors propose a novel double-masking protocol that guarantees the authenticity of data shared by multiple users while protecting their privacy. Distributed consensus in the context of the Internet of Vehicles is achieved in [24] through permissionless blockchains in order to guarantee reliability of information collected from individual vehicles. Similarly, blockchain technology is adopted in [25] both to ensure privacy during the mobile crowdsensing process, and to protect the reward mechanism for participants.

More generally, privacy can be achieved in a number of ways; for instance, it would be crucial to avoid the fog entities to access data coming from individual edge devices. To this aim, attribute-based encryption [26], data perturbation [27] and privacy-preserving data aggregation [28] techniques can be adopted.

For instance, the privacy leakage problem associated with accelerometer data sharing are highlighted in [29] through an information-aware visualization tool. The authors of [30] focus on security and privacy of a face identification and resolution framework (FIRF) that exploits fog entities to reduce the processing time and reduce the bandwidth usage. To this aim, authentication and key agreement schemes are presented to protect the framework from some well-known attacks, e.g., man-in-the-middle, eavesdropping, and data hijack. FIRF provides adequate level of security in fog-cloud communications, while ignoring the protection of data shared between edge and fog devices. A more specific Anonymous and Secure Aggregation Scheme (ASAS) for fog-based applications is presented in [31]. The main goals of ASAS are protecting the identities of edge devices by using pseudonyms, and guaranteeing data secrecy by means of robust homomorphic encryption (HE). Unfortunately, this last feature makes ASAS unsuitable for real-time applications because of the HE computational complexity [32]. In [19] a user authentication and key management scheme for fog computing services, called SAKA, is presented. SAKA exploits a combination of lightweight cryptographic techniques (i.e., one-way hash functions, bitwise exclusive-OR, and elliptic curves) so as to meet the computational requirements of resource constrained devices. Authors show that, compared to other protocols, their solution provides better performances and security features with a low overhead.

The security and privacy challenges discussed so far are illustrative, but not exhaustive, of a class of problems that need to be faced during the design of a fog-based system. A comprehensive literature review on the security challenges in fog-computing is provided in [33].

Fog-based architecture for mobile crowdsensing

Fog computing paradigm is particularly suitable for scenarios in which a large number of heterogeneous, ubiquitous, and decentralized devices communicate with each other in order to perform cooperative processing tasks. For this reason, participatory sensing, social sensing, and crowdsensing systems can exploit fog computing to design scalable and well performing applications in which humans act as “sensors”.

Table 1 List of abbreviations

A general crowdsensing process consists of different steps, including low-level data acquisition and analysis, features summarization, intermediate data modeling and machine learning, Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques for high-level reasoning, and so on. Thanks to the latest advances in mobile computing, these tasks do not require to be performed by a single entity, but can be logically distributed among different physical devices cooperating within a common architecture. In particular, the idea behind fog computing is to move early analysis towards the edge of the network, while relying on other intermediate (fog) or remote (cloud) devices for computations of increasing complexity.

Based on these concepts, this section describes the main features of a human-centric fog-based architecture [34] that can be adopted as basis for a wide number of mobile crowdsensing applications. Discussion about the architecture and the proposed secure message exchange protocol requires the use of various notations and abbreviations that, for the sake of clarity, are listed in Table 1.

The architecture is composed of three logic levels in which operate devices with increasing computing power. At the lowest level, see Fig. 1, edge devices (ED) that are used by many people in their daily lives (e.g., smart wristband devices and smartphones) are responsible for capturing raw data about the user or the environment. In order to reduce bandwidth and power consumption, edge devices do not communicate with each other; still, they are able to locally perform early data preprocessing and send aggregate data to the fog layer. Here, more powerful units, i.e., the fog devices (FD), are suited to perform time consuming tasks, e.g., create mathematical models of environmental measurements taken over time, learn users’ habits, recognize relevant pattern, or execute AI algorithms.

Fig. 1

Fog-based architecture

Each FD can manage a different number of EDs according to its computational power and characteristics. For instance, a smartphone (\(FD_{1}\) on Fig. 1) could be used to process data coming from a few wrist-worn devices, while a laptop (\(FD_{2}\)) could be able to manage a greater number of nodes. It would be also possible to consider static fog devices, such as smart poles (\(FD_{n}\)), designed to process data coming from various edge devices owned by moving people.

Fog devices can also exchange information, e.g., intermediate data models, with other devices at the same layer by means of wireless technologies, such as WiFi, or GSM/xG cellular networks.

Information produced at the edge and fog layers is sent to the Cloud Data Center (CDC) for heavy resource-consuming data analysis and storage. Results of CDC analysis are sent back to the fog in order to make the whole system consistent. The amount of data exchanged between fog and cloud is usually noteworthy, thus compression algorithms can be applied to improve the transmission efficiency.

Since data processed within the architecture are intended to be kept secret, a lightweight security protocol complements our architecture by guaranteeing secure data transmission and storage.

Requirements and tools for lightweight security

In general terms, private data must be protected from two classes of attackers: internal and external. The former are authorized users that aim to infer information about other users, or the inner system behavior. The latter operate from outside the perimeter of the system and are in most cases easier to detect. Impersonation, for instance, is a type of attack in which the intruder I assumes the identity of a legitimate user L. In a mobile crowdsensing scenario, for instance, an impersonation attack could allow I to obtain a valid session key to transmit forged information, e.g., corrupted data or wrong feedbacks, that would compromise the performance of the system. Similarly, Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attack, i.e., a simultaneous double impersonation attack, could be performed to alter the communication between two parties, while making both believe that are directly communicating with each other. In the context of IoT and smart devices, another class of attacks, named replay attacks, can be performed to retransmit the same data over and over in order to cause a Denial of Service (DoS) on the target, e.g., the fog device.

In order to contrast these threats, a secure mobile crowdsensing system should meet the following security requirements:

  • registration to the service: all the entities must be registered with the system before they can use the services;

  • data secrecy and integrity: neither internal nor external attackers must be able to read and modify the content of data stored within the devices, and the messages exchanged between the entities;

  • timeliness: an attacker can not intercept messages within a valid session and retransmit them at a later time;

  • user privacy: the fog nodes must be able to process information sent by the edge, e.g., in order to perform activity recognition. However, this process must be performed respecting the privacy of the user, e.g., the fog must infer the activity performed without being able to associate it to a particular user.

Moreover, given the low computation capability of mobile devices, the overhead introduced by the cyber security mechanisms and protocols should be quite limited. When relying on a symmetric encryption algorithm, for instance, an initial overhead is introduced because all parties involved in data transmission have to agree on a secret key before data can be actually sent through a secure communication channel.

Key exchange protocols based on RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) and Diffie–Hellman (DH) have been extensively adopted in the literature. However, these techniques require a considerable computational effort that makes them unsuitable for devices with limited resources. For this reason, more recently, light encryption techniques that are more appropriate for IoT and mobile devices have been proposed.

Efficient key exchange on mobile smart devices

One of the most convenient approach for efficient asymmetric cryptography is the Elliptic-Curve Cryptography (ECC). The main benefit provided by ECC is the use of smaller keys than other algorithms, while achieving the same level of security [35]. This feature is crucial to reduce the encryption time, especially when dealing with huge amount of data. In [36], for instance, big data collected in healthcare systems are efficiently secured by means of bilinear pairing cryptography. In the scenario addressed here, ECC allows to significantly reduce the time required for generating and sharing the keys, while also minimizing the storing space and the power consumptions.

Different types of elliptic curves [37, 38], and many standards (such as NIST FIPS 186-2 [39] and IEEE P1363 [40]) have been presented in the literature. However, both academia and industry have recently started to adopt non-standard curves that guarantee a greater level of security, while also reducing the computation time. Curve25519, for instance, has been proven to be resistant to timing attacks and twice as fast as standard curves [41]. All parties that want to use ECC must agree on a set of values that defines the elliptic curve, i.e., the domain parameters. For a generic curve, this set is indicated as \(D = \{q \text {,}\,FR \text {,}\,a \text {,}\,b \text {,}\,G \text {,}\,n \text {,}\,h \}\), where q is an integer specifying the finite field \({\mathbb {F}}_{q}\), FR indicates the basis used for representing the field elements, \(\{a \text {,}\,b\} \in \)\({\mathbb {F}}_{q}\) define the equation of the elliptic curve, G is a distinguished point of order n in an elliptic curve group, and h represents the cofactor.

Elliptic-Curve Cryptography is the basis for the Extended Triple Diffie–Hellman Key Agreement (X3DHKA) that is currently adopted as security mechanism in several Android and IOS applications. Considering two parties A and B, the X3DHKA protocol consists of three phases and makes use of the following keys:

  • \(PU_{A}\), \(PU_{B}\): long-term public keys of the two entities;

  • \(EPU_{A}\), \(EPR_{A}\): an ephemeral key pair used by A;

  • \(SPK_{B}\): a momentary prekey signed by B that will be updated at some interval (e.g. once a week, or once a month);

  • \(OPK_{Bi}\): a set of one-time prekeys used by B.

X3DHKA is designed for both asynchronous and synchronous settings. In the first scenario, B sends to a Key Management Server (KMS) the long-term public key \(PU_{B}\), the signed prekey \(SPK_{B}\), the digital signature on \(SPK_{B}\), and a set of m one-time prekeys \(S = \{ OPK_{B1} \text {,}\,OPK_{B2} \text {,}\,\dots \text {,}\,OPK_{Bm} \}\).

Then, A asks KMS for the bundle provided by B. The B’s prekey signature is checked and the protocol is stopped if the verification fails; otherwise, A generates an ephemeral key pair \((EPU_{A} \text {,}\,EPR_{A})\). The 32 bytes session key \(K_{S}\) is obtained by calculating the following functions:

$$\begin{aligned} {{{\textsf {\textit{KDF}}}}}( {{{\textsf {\textit{DH}}}}}({{{\textsf {\textit{PU}}}}}_{{{{\textsf {\textit{A}}}}}},{{{\textsf {\textit{SPK}}}}}_{{{{\textsf {\textit{B}}}}}}) \ || \ {{{\textsf {\textit{DH}}}}}({{{\textsf {\textit{EPU}}}}}_{{{{\textsf {\textit{A}}}}}},{{{\textsf {\textit{PU}}}}}_{{{{\textsf {\textit{B}}}}}}) \ || \ {{{\textsf {\textit{DH}}}}}({{{\textsf {\textit{EPU}}}}}_{{{{\textsf {\textit{A}}}}}},{{{\textsf {\textit{SPK}}}}}_{{{{\textsf {\textit{B}}}}}}) \ || \ {{{\textsf {\textit{DH}}}}}({{{\textsf {\textit{EPU}}}}}_{{{{\textsf {\textit{A}}}}}},{{{\textsf {\textit{OPK}}}}}_{{{{\textsf {\textit{B}}}}}}) ) , \end{aligned}$$

where KDF is the HMAC-based key derivation function described in [42], and the generic \(DH(PU_{1} \text {,}\,PU_{2})\) is an Elliptic Curve Diffie–Hellman function, e.g., Curve25519, that involves the public keys \(PU_{1}\) and \(PU_{2}\).

Finally, A sends a message to B containing the keys \(PU_{A}\), \(EPU_{A}\), the value i that identifies the one-time prekey \(OPK_{Bi}\) used by A, and an initial message encrypted with the session key \(K_{S}\). The entity B will use such information to calculate the DH and KDF functions and derive the key \(K_{S}\). Once the session key has been generated, the one-time keys are deleted to guarantee forward secrecy.

Conversely, X3DHKA can be executed in a synchronous way by letting B directly communicate with A to request necessary information and establish secure communication.

SMCP: a Secure Mobile Crowdsensing Protocol

In order to provide the end user with the functionalities discussed so far, the devices deployed at the edge, fog, and cloud layers must be provided with three different software components.

The core of the platform resides on the Cloud Data Center; here, besides performing the specific crowdsensing algorithms, the software is responsible for managing the devices that operate at the underlying layers. In particular, one of the most important roles of the CDC is to supervise the registration of new edge and fog devices by providing them with their corresponding apps.

The fogApp installed on FDs makes them able to perform time-consuming tasks (e.g., activity recognition), to announce the presence of fog devices to the edge devices, and to establish secure connections with other devices at the fog layer. Any new FD demanding to be part of the system is required to install the fogApp first.

In a similar way, the end users willing to participate to the system need to install on the edge device the edgeApp. At first, a light version of this app supporting only the discovery of nearby fog devices is installed. Other functionalities (HAR algorithms and cryptographic suite) will be available just after the edge enrollment has been completed. This phase starts with a fog announcement/discovery step that allows to create a preliminary, secure, association between the edge and fog layers. By means of this channel, the edge exploits the fog as intermediary with the cloud in order to obtain the full version of edgeApp, and complete the registration procedure.

Anytime an edge device approximates to a new fog device, the same announcement/discovery procedure is followed to create a new edge-fog association. For instance, an edge device \(ED_{1}\) could have obtained the edgeApp by registering with the fog devices \(FD_{1}\), but a new association can be created later for transferring data to a different device \(FD_{2}\). In such a scenario, \(ED_{1}\) and \(FD_{2}\) have to agree on a session key aimed at protecting their communications. Moreover, the cloud may act as a Key Management Server providing all the FDs with a session key for fog-to-fog communications. This key is initially included in the fogApp, and regularly updated. In particular, in order to meet the computational capabilities of the smart devices considered here, two lightweight encryption techniques, i.e., Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), are used.

The devices discussed so far need to continuously communicate with each other in order to accomplish their tasks. In general terms, all network activities that involve two or more communicating remote entities are governed by a protocol. A protocol defines the format and the order of messages exchanged between two or more parties, as well as the actions taken on the transmission and/or receipt of a message or other event [43]. The next subsections describe the entities, the messages exchanged, and the actions needed to implement the SMCP protocol.

Fog enrollment

Fig. 2

Fog devices enrollment

A new fog device can be added to the system by installing on it the fogApp (Fig. 2—step 1). In order to support secure communications, this app includes the elliptic curve domain parameters D, and the cloud long-term public key \(\mathsf {PU_{C}}\); starting from them, the fog device generates a long-term key pair \(\mathsf {\{PU_{F} \text {,}\,PR_{F}\}}\).

The fog registration procedure starts with preparing and sending the message \(\mathsf {FR_F}\) (step 6) that includes the identifier of the fog (\(\mathsf {ID_F}\)), the set of parameters describing the characteristics of the device (\(\mathsf {Par_{F}}\)), and the fog public key (\(\mathsf {PU_F}\)). During the registration, two certificates are generated by the cloud (steps 9–10). The former, \(\mathsf {Cert_{F}}\), contains the values \(\mathsf {(ID_{F} \text {,}\,PU_{F})}\) and will be used by any edge device to recognize that fog as legitimate. The latter, \(\mathsf {Info_{F}}\), ensures the edge for the authenticity of the computational parameters contained in \(\mathsf {Par_{F}}\). Without the \(\mathsf {Info_{F}}\) certificate, an attacker could exhibit a forged \(\mathsf {Par_{F}}\) to monopolize the communications with the neighboring edges. The registration confirmation is sent to the fog device with the message \(\mathsf {FR_C}\) (step 12).

The computational capabilities of fog and cloud devices make them able to implement the TLS protocol; thus, both \(\mathsf {FR_F}\) and \(\mathsf {FR_C}\) can be transmitted securely over a TLS channel preventing external attacks, such as MitM, Replay, or Impersonation. Once the registration is completed, each fog device will own a long-term key pair \(\mathsf {\{PU_{F} \text {,}\,PR_{F}\}}\), and the pair of certificates \(\mathsf {\{Cert_{F} \text {,}\,Info_{F}\}}\) (steps 15–16).

After registering to the system, the fog device is able to generate all the parameters needed to communicate with the edge units, according to the X3DHKA scheme described in section "Efficient key exchange on mobile smart devices".

Fig. 3

Edge devices enrollment

Edge enrollment

In order to take advantage of the services offered by the system, the end user also needs to install a mobile application on its edge device. The light version of the edgeApp (Fig. 3— step 1) includes the fog discovery routines, a symmetric key \(\mathsf {K_{EC}}\) for early Edge-Cloud communications, and the cloud public key \(\mathsf {PU_{C}}\).

In an early phase, the fog announces its presence by broadcasting a message containing the fog \(\mathsf {ID_{F}}\) and the pair of certificates obtained during the fog registration step (step 4). Such information is used by the edge to verify the identity of the fog (step 6), and to send the request for downloading the full version of the edgeApp (step 11). To this aim, the edge sends to the CDC (by relying on the fog \(\mathsf {ID_{F}}\)) the message \(\mathsf {ER_E}\) (step 13) containing a pseudorandom number computed as function of the edge identifier \(\mathsf {ID_{E}}\) and the physical address of the device.

After receiving \(\mathsf {ER_E}\), the CDC sends the logic set of messages \(\mathsf {ER_C}\) containing the \(\mathsf {fullEdgeApp}\), which is signed, encrypted, and sent to the edge \(\mathsf {ID_{E}}\) through the fog \(\mathsf {ID_{F}}\) (steps 18–20).

In addition to the fog and edge enrollment, SMCP covers all the phases in which the crowdsensing algorithms are executed actually. To prove the validity of the proposed approach, we considered as case study the definition of a secure fog-based HAR framework aiming to perform near real-time recognition of activities of different lengths.

Sample case: secure message exchange for HAR

In this section, we first provide a brief description of the algorithms that implement the HAR system; then, we present how SMCP is used to protect data exchanged during edge-fog, and fog-cloud communications needed to perform the HAR process.

Overview of the HAR framework

The goal of the HAR framework we adopted here [34] is to perform near real-time recognition of complex activities of different lengths. The main idea is that complex activities can be reasonably decomposed in simple, atomic, micro-activities. For instance, for a given user, the everyday activity go to work may be performed by (1) walking for a while, (2) driving or being in a vehicle for a certain amount of time, then (3) walking again, (4) going up the stairs, and finally arriving at the office (5) staying still. The most representative characteristics of these five phases can be easily captured by the sensors embedded in the smartwatches; on the contrary, an overall knowledge of the activity carried out is more difficult to obtain. Thus, we can start by building up feature vectors that summarize data from the three-axis accelerometer and gyroscope sensors, i.e., by computing their max, min, mean, standard deviation, root mean square values at fixed time intervals [44]. In particular, considering both acceleration and angular velocity values allows to discriminate between micro-activities that exhibit similar acceleration values (e.g., sitting or driving), although being characterized by different types of oscillations.

Given that each feature vector captures the hidden characteristics of a certain micro-activity ma, a complex activity CA can be seen as a specific sequence of micro-activities \(\{ ma_{1} \text {,}\,ma_{2} \text {,}\,\dots \text {,}\,ma_{n} \}\). In order to find a minimal set of \(\Omega \) relevant micro-activities, with \(\Omega<<n\), which can properly describe every CA we want to recognize, two machine learning algorithms, namely, K-means clustering and SVM classifiers, can be combined. This approach, known as KM-SVM or CSVM, exploits K-Means to group the feature vectors \((f_1 \text {,}\,f_2 \text {,}\,\dots \text {,}\,f_n)\) into a lower number of clusters \(C = (C_1 \text {,}\,C_2 \text {,}\,\dots \text {,}\,C_{\Omega })\), that will be used to train the SVMs.

After CSVM has been performed, the resulting set \(\{ ma_{1} \text {,}\,ma_{2} \text {,}\,\dots \text {,}\,ma_{\Omega } \}\) can be exploited to model any complex activity. To this aim, this collection is used to train m distinct Hidden Markov Models, where m is the number of complex activities the system can recognize. In our scenario, the activities can be seen as the hidden states we want to find according to a set of observations, i.e., sensor data. Thus, given a set of micro-activities, the recognition of a new, unknown, sequence is performed by testing it against all the HMMs, and selecting the class associated with the largest posterior probability.


Fig. 4

Messages exchanged during a X3DHKA, b Activity Recognition, and c Cloud Update

In order to protect data exchanged during the HAR phases, edge and fog devices must agree on a secret session key \(\mathsf {K_{S}}\) using the X3DHKA protocol.

To this aim, the edge device sends the message \(\mathsf {E_{E1}}\) to the fog containing the key \(\mathsf {EPU_{E}}\) and the digital signature on \(\mathsf {EPU_{E}}\) (Fig. 4a, step 6). Ciphering \(\mathsf {EPU_{E}}\) with the public key of the fog prevents an intruder to know the seed from which it is possible to generate \(\mathsf {K_{S}}\), while the digital signature \(\mathsf {Sig_{EPU}}\) guarantees that \(\mathsf {EPU_{E}}\) is authentic. After receiving \(\mathsf {E_{E1}}\), the fog checks \(\mathsf {Sig_{EPU}}\) and computes the session key \(\mathsf {K_{S}}\) using the X3DHKA scheme. Now only the fog device knows \(\mathsf {K_{S}}\); thus, in order to let the edge device to compute the session key, the message \(\mathsf {E_{F1}}\) is sent (step 15). This message specifies both the one-time prekey \(\mathsf {OPK_F}\) used by the fog device, and the \(\mathsf {EPU_E}\) previously sent by the edge device so as to ensure the uniqueness of the session.

When the edge device receives \(\mathsf {E_{F1}}\), it verifies that \(\mathsf {EPU_{E}}\) corresponds to the one reported in message \(\mathsf {E_{E1}}\) and performs all the steps needed to obtain \(\mathsf {K_{S}}\) (steps 16–20). From now on, the two entities can delete all the intermediate keys and communicate through an Authenticated Encryption with Associated Data (AEAD) algorithm.

Concluded the key exchange steps, the edge device can start sending to the fog device the sensory data collected during the HAR phases (Fig. 4b, step 25). The field \(\mathsf {data}\) includes both the feature vector computed on the accelerometer and gyroscope measures, and the \(\mathsf {timestamp}\) reporting when data were captured. Moreover, in order to face a replay attack within the established session between edge and fog, \(\mathsf {E_{E2}}\) also contains a nonce \(\mathsf {N_{1}}\).

The messages of type \(\mathsf {E_{E2}}\) are collected by the fog until it has enough rough data to start the activity recognition process. Once an activity has been recognized, the fog device prepares the message \(\mathsf {E_{F2}}\) containing the \(\mathsf {ID_{A}}\) of the activity, the time interval within it was performed, and a nonce \(\mathsf {N_{2}}\) ensuring the uniqueness of the message (step 34). To improve the performance of the HAR system, the end user can provide a feedback about the output of the recognition process (see Fig. 4c). To this aim, a message \(\mathsf {E_{E3}}\) is sent from edge device to fog device (step 43). Finally, the message \(\mathsf {E_{F3}}\) including all data involved in the activity recognition process is transferred from the fog to the cloud through a secure TLS channel (step 49), and then stored (step 52).

It is worth noting that X3DH Key Agreement (Fig. 4a) is common to every kind of application in which SMCP is adopted. On the contrary, different crowdsensing applications may require the protection (Fig. 4b) and synchronization (Fig. 4c) of different kind of data. To this aim, the overall structure of SMCP can be easily modified and just a few message contents need to be changed according to the algorithms that implement the crowdsensing routines. For instance, considering a distributed vehicle traffic monitoring system, message \(\mathsf {m_3}\) should be modified to contain other sensory data, such as accelerometer or GPS information. Then, many \(\mathsf {m_3}\) messages would be sent to the fog where an ad-hoc machine learning algorithm (step 23) would be able to recognize the traffic level in a certain geographical area. Finally, the system could ask interested users to provide feedback to validate the reported output (step 40).

Experimental analysis

In order to assess the validity of the proposed approach, we considered a scenario in which people acting in a smart environment, e.g., a smart city, a smart campus, or even a gym or a retirement home, are monitored through a pervasive artificial intelligence system whose nodes are the users’ personal smart devices.

All the experiments described below were conducted by using as edge nodes various Android-based smartphones and smartwatches equipped with gyroscope and accelerometer sensors. Data between smartwatches and smartphones are exchanged through short-range Bluetooth technology, but the proposed architecture is compatible with a number of smart devices which provide other wireless communication interfaces.

In order to support the processing steps described so far, each mobile device must came at least with a dual-core processor and 512 MB RAM. Two mobile applications for smartphones and smartwatches were developed. The smartphone app is suited for Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS or higher, whilst the smartwatches require at least Android 4.1 Jelly Bean OS.

Table 2 Devices used in the proposed case study

In order to validate the generality of the architecture, we considered a test bed consisting of several devices, each of them having distinct hardware capabilities (see Table 2). In particular, we used (i) three different models of smartwatches as edge devices, (ii) two types of smartphones and one laptop as fog devices, and (iii) a commercial cloud computing web server as CDC.

The assessment of the HAR process described in section "Overview of the HAR framework" was made asking 20 volunteers to perform 10 different complex activities, such as go-to-work (walking for a while), jogging (alternating running and walking phases), cooking (briefly moving in the kitchen), and driving (staying in a vehicle for a long time). Preliminary experiments were intended to find the best set of parameters for the activity recognition procedure, that is the number of clusters/words in the dictionary (\(\Omega \)), and the number of hidden states in HMMs (N). To this aim, grid-search and 10-fold cross validation on the pair \((\Omega ,N)\) were performed. Once the best configuration for the HAR system was established, other experiments were conducted to evaluate the recognition performance on a new test set. A comprehensive evaluation of the HAR framework is reported in [34].

SMCP: performance analysis

Fig. 5

Average computation time required to generate the key pair by RSA and Curve25519 on smartphones, smartwatches, and PCs

Since the HAR algorithms highly exploits the computational capabilities of resource-constrained devices, tests presented here have been focused on evaluating the overhead introduced by the secure message exchange protocol.

The first set of experiments aimed at measuring the computation time required by RSA and Curve25519 to generate a key pair on different edge and fog devices. Since Curve25519 uses keys of 256-bit guaranteeing a security level of 128-bit, comparisons with RSA were performed using keys of 3072-bits that provide roughly an equivalent resistance to security attacks.

Figure 5 shows the average computation time required to generate the key pair, as measured on smartwatches, smartphones, and PCs. Results confirm the effectiveness of elliptic-curve cryptography being each of the three tasks completed in about 0.15 s. Moreover, Curve25519 allows to use shorter keys than RSA, which also lead to better storage requirements and improved performance.

Fig. 6

Message complexity in terms of computation time (a) and size (b)

As regards data transmission, the devices operating within the proposed framework can transmit to each other information of different kind (e.g., sensor measurements, messages, activity models), and size. Then, other tests were performed to evaluate the complexity of the messages described in section "SMCP for HAR" in terms of computation time required for their preparation \(t_{p}\), and size s.

Figure 6a shows that a time of about 2 s is required to compute the most complex message \(\mathsf {E_{F2}}\). This message is created by a fog device after the recognition process has been completed; thus, a low value of \(t_{p}(\)\(\mathsf {E_{F2}}\)) reflects also the good performances of the HAR algorithms. Similarly, the second most time expensive messages \(\mathsf {E_{E2}}\) and \(\mathsf {E_{F3}}\), containing recognition data, are prepared in about 0.4 s. The computation time required to prepare the messages \(\mathsf {ER_E}\), \(\mathsf {ER_C}\), and \(\mathsf {E_{E3}}\) mostly depends on the symmetric encryption step. By observing the other \(t_{p}\) values, we can conclude that the overhead introduced by the secure message exchange protocol is very low, being the average computation time for the other messages below 0.3 s.

The size of the set of messages discussed so far is analyzed in Fig. 6b. The heaviest message, as expected, is the set \(\mathsf {ER_C}\) that contains the \(\mathsf {fullEdgeApp}\) sent to the edge relying on the fog. The second heaviest message is \(\mathsf {E_{F3}}\), that is the synchronization message sent from the fog to the cloud in order to update the overall activity models. The size of all the messages from \(\mathsf {FR_F}\) to \(\mathsf {E_{F1}}\) is always smaller than 10 KB, making them suitable for timely transmission also through the low-power edge-fog communication network.

Fig. 7

a Size of \(\mathsf {E_{E2}}\) while varying the data collection time, and b the corresponding average encryption time using AES

Table 3 Security features comparison of SMCP with some other protocols

As regards \(\mathsf {E_{E2}}\) its size varies according to the amount of data transferred from the edge to the fog. It is worth noting that this message is encrypted with the session key \(\mathsf {K_{S}}\), thus the greater is its size the more is the computation time required by the symmetric-key encryption algorithm.

In order to find a trade-off between message size and encryption time, different tests were performed using the devices listed in Table 2. The curves depicted in Fig. 7a show that the time required for encrypting the message \(\mathsf {E_{E2}}\) is similar for the three edge devices we adopted. This result is easily explainable since AES is efficiently performed in hardware in almost any recent smart device. According to these results, we chose to limit the size of \(\mathsf {E_{E2}}\) to about 100 KB so as to perform AES encryption in about 100 ms. Moreover, as shown in Fig. 7b, such an amount of data is collected in about 2 min when using the same sampling frequency for all the devices.

SMCP: comparison with SAKA and FIRF protocols

In order to present a preliminary comparison of SMCP with other approaches representing the state-of-the-art, Table 3 summarizes the security features provided by some relevant related protocols. We can notice that some of them, i.e., [20] and [21], do not cover secure fog-cloud communications, nor provide user anonymity. None of these protocols but SMCP are able to manage dynamic fog device registration, while all are designed to deal with replay attacks. According to these results, in the following of this section we present a comparative analysis of SMCP with a general-purpose protocol, namely SAKA [19], and a specific application domain protocol, FIRF [30].

The main goal of the SAKA is to provide a secure authenticated key agreement scheme that is suitable for a general purpose fog-based application. The protocol consists of eight phases, among which we identified those that are strictly related to the four that characterize SMCP, namely the fog registration, edge registration, edge-fog communication, and fog-cloud communication.

The first set of experiments was focused on comparing SMCP and SAKA in terms of computation time spent for completing the four aforementioned phases. To this aim, we followed the same approach adopted by the authors of SAKA. We started from the sequence of messages used in SMCP (as described in section "SMCP for HAR"), and we analyzed each message by pointing out the operations that mostly affect the computation time. The same analysis was performed on SAKA by defining a new sequence of messages (see Fig. 8) that provide the same functionalities of SMCP while using the SAKA key agreement scheme. Then, we selected the most heavy operations from both protocols, whose computation times are denoted by \(T_{ecm}\) (elliptic curve point multiplication), \(T_{hash}\) (cryptographic one-way hash function), \(T_{sig}\) (signature generation), \(T_{sed}\) (symmetric encryption and decryption), \(T_{aed}\) (asymmetric encryption and decryption), \(T_{tls}\) (TLS handshake), \(T_{cert}\) (certificate generation), \(T_{x3dh}\) (X3DHKA protocol), \(T_{kafc}\) (SAKA fog-cloud key agreement), and \(T_{kaef}\) (SAKA edge-fog key agreement).

Fig. 8

Messages exchanged during four phases common to the SMCP and SAKA protocols

These quantities have been used to provide an early, explainable, description of the computation cost of SMCP and SAKA. Results, summarized in Table 4, highlight that some computations are common to both protocols, i.e., symmetric encryption and decryption (sed) and signature generation (sig), while others reflect the main distinctive characteristic of the two schemes, i.e., the key agreement phase. More specifically, SMCP makes use of TLS to protect the communications between fog and cloud, and exploits the X3DHKA protocol for key agreement in edge-fog message exchange. On the other hand, SAKA proposes an ad-hoc key agreement protocol for making secure edge-fog and fog-cloud communications.

Table 4 Comparison of SMCP and SAKA computation costs

These preliminary results have been further investigated by running SMCP and SAKA on the devices presented at the beginning of this section. Results revealed that SMCP takes less computation time than SAKA to complete each phase. In particular, fog registration, edge registration, and fog-cloud communications are faster in our scheme thanks to the adoption of the TLS protocol. As regards the edge-fog communication, the total computation time of SMCP is almost equal to the corresponding phase in SAKA.

Conversely, TLS impacts on the size of the messages because of the introduction of security certificates. Moreover, during the SMCP fog registration and edge registration, the transmission of other two certificates (\(Cert_F\) and \(Cert_E\)) increases the message size. However, it is worth noting that certificates allow us to overcome three notable limits of SAKA. The first is that fog devices considered by SAKA are chosen during the design of the fog application; it means that the set of fog devices is fixed, and they are implicitly treated as trusted entities. On the contrary, SMCP allows to use a wide set of fog devices that can join the system at anytime by just presenting themselves by means of their certificates. Moreover, the use of security certificates allows to prove the characteristics of the device, preventing an internal attacker from manipulating the system during the selection of the best fog to provide a service.

Finally, a notable drawback of SAKA is the huge network load generated when a new edge device is registered to the network. In particular, every time a new edge device is added, the cloud sends a message to all fog devices via a secure channel. This represents a significant limitation in real applications where the number of edge and fog devices is high.

The last set of experiments aimed at comparing the secure fog-cloud communications provided by SMCP and FIRF [30]. In SMCP, every communication between fog and cloud is secured by TLS, while FIRF adopts a preliminary session key agreement protocol, based on Diffie-Helmann, that requires a set Z formed of 4 different messages. The first two, \(Z_1\) and \(Z_2\), are used to obtain the session key, while \(Z_3\) and \(Z_4\) to check if the key exchange has been completed successfully. A comparison between different executions of the two protocols focusing on fog-cloud communications only is reported in Table 5.

Results show that the use of TLS makes SMCP able to complete the message exchange faster than FIRF, while message size is still worst in SMCP due to the use of certificates. Furthermore, SMCP allows the system to achieve a higher degree of security compared to FIRF; for instance, data secrecy, data integrity, and users anonymity are not fully covered by FIRF due to the lack of secure communication between edge and fog devices, as discussed in section "Related work".

Table 5 SMCP and FIRF compared in terms of average computation time (s) and size (KB) of the messages exchanged during the fog-cloud communication


In this paper we focused on the threats and security requirements of a fog-based crowdsensing framework in which the processing tasks are distributed among different types of users’ smart devices. Due to the intrinsic distributed nature of the fog environment, the system is prone to attacks intended to obtain information about the users, or alter the performance of the system.

For this reason, cyber security mechanisms need to be designed while meeting the computational power of the devices involved. To this aim, we presented SMCP, a secure protocol for mobile crowdsensing based on Elliptic-Curve Cryptography, Extended Triple Diffie–Hellman Key Agreement, and symmetric cryptography that have been proved to be particularly suitable for mobile smart devices.

The performances of the SMCP have been firstly evaluated in terms of computation time required for completing ECC tasks and preparing the messages that implement the secure protocol. Then, a comparative analysis between SMCP and two state-of-the-art protocols, i.e., SAKA and FIRF, has been presented.

Results showed that SMCP takes less time than its competitors to make fog registration, edge registration, and fog-cloud communications secure. This is mainly because of the adoption of the TLS protocol and the X3DHKA protocol. Moreover, although the size of the messages exchanged in SMCP is greater than those used by SAKA and FIRF, the analysis we have conducted suggests that this small overhead is necessary to overcome some limitations of SAKA and FIRF.

Even though our system has been discussed in the case study of a distributed HAR application, the generality of the security mechanisms we designed allow to SMCP in other distributed sensing scenarios. For instance, edge devices operating in a smart environment could capture information about the user’s presence in order to support a variety of higher-level services, e.g., crowd counting, estimation of people flowing in urban areas, pollution prevention, and so on.

As regards future work, being the whole sensing process based on the user’s reliability, one of the main limitations of the proposed security scheme is the protection from internal attacks performed by legitimate users. This point is crucial to any crowdsensing system and can be faced by designing incentives to reliable participation [45]. To this aim, we will focus on reputation management mechanisms that would allow to estimate the user’s trustworthy and discourage malicious behaviors.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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This research is partially funded by the Crowdsense project - PO FESR 2014-2020 cup G29J18000740007.

Author information




All authors provided equal contribution to the study. FC focused on the definition of the fog-based architecture and performed the experimental analysis. GLR supervised the whole study and conducted the analysis of the security requirements. MM designed the secure protocol, defined the experimental campaign and interpreted its results. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Marco Morana.

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Concone, F., Lo Re, G. & Morana, M. SMCP: a Secure Mobile Crowdsensing Protocol for fog-based applications. Hum. Cent. Comput. Inf. Sci. 10, 28 (2020).

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  • Human activity recognition
  • Mobile crowdsensing
  • Cyber security
  • Artificial intelligence