University receives $28.1 million to research technology combating cyber-attacks

By Vivienne Henning

In recent years, cyber hackers have waged attacks on organizations ranging from Sony Entertainment to the U.S. government. University researchers will investigate another area of cyber vulnerability — the nation’s energy infrastructure.

The University was selected to be a part of the Cyber Resilient Energy Delivery Consortium (CREDC) to help in the quest to develop better energy delivery protection systems. The University was awarded $28.1 million from the Department of Energy to be used for the five-year initiative.

The University will work with eleven other universities and national laboratories to focus on improving the cyber resiliency of energy delivery systems.

Resiliency is the number one component the University researchers will focus on to help improve energy delivery systems, said David Nicol, professor in ECE and CREDC investigator. He said there are three main aspects of resiliency — “the ability to withstand an event when it happens, the ability to deliver critical services even while the event is happening and the ability to come back fast.”

The researchers involved in the initiative are working to prepare in the event of a worst case scenario.

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“It would be really bad if it was possible for someone to attack our energy delivery systems and cause significant widespread and sustained outage. That’s the worst case scenario, and what we’re really trying to do is make that worst case scenario less likely to happen,” Nicol said. “If we can convince ourselves and convince everybody else that the technology that we develop and introduce has done that, then it’s a win.”

William Sanders, Electrical and Computer Engineering department head said the Information Trust Institute and ECE are joining forces to help bring about cyber resiliency.

“Cyber resiliency looks at how and when attacks may occur; you can build a system that can still perform and function,” Sanders said. “So even if it’s not possible to prevent all attacks from occurring we want to build a system that can still carry out its function.”

Examples of cyber resiliency range from issues with a power grid working to keep the lights on to trouble with oil and gas delivery systems while continuing to deliver a safe and available stream of energy.

“What we’re doing is building a system that can sense and be aware of what’s going on, and it will respond and continue to perform correctly even if some attacks occur,” Sanders said.

Rakesh Bobba is a former researcher in the Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid (TCIPG) project, which is comprised of students and researchers from the University researching energy grid infrastructure.

“Our energy infrastructure, such as the electricity grid, oil and gas pipelines, are monitored and controlled essentially using computing and communication technology. This cyber infrastructure, as we are all too well aware, is vulnerable to cyber-attacks,” Bobba said. “The main goal of the CREDC consortium is to address this challenge — how to design and operate a cyber resilient energy delivery infrastructure.”

Nicol said the computer systems or enterprise systems that control energy delivery have very tight time constraints because the system is interacting and controlling a physical system.

“There are many moving parts,” Nicol said. “This means that any additional layers of protection that you put into this whole mechanism is going to slow things down. So you have to be sure that the things that you do aren’t going to slow the system down so much that it becomes unusable.”

Although bringing in more levels of computers and software may seem like a logical idea, Nicol said using more computers increases the ‘attack surfaces’ in which things could fail — accidentally or maliciously.

“It’s a fantastic project because it really gives us at the University the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse group of partners,” Sanders said. “I think that combination of a diverse set of partners working together to achieve this overall goal is going to enable us to make progress.”