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Protecting power grids through cyber-security testbed

Posted: 27 Jan 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Iowa State University  security testbed  power grid  cyber-security 

Power grids are not immune to attacks. The power plants, the high voltage lines, the transmission towers, the substations and all the low-voltage distribution lines that bring power to our homes and businesses are favourite targets of attack. Such attacks would involve getting out and cutting lines or dropping towers.

But there's another, less visible piece to the grid: all the computers and communication networks that make it work. Attackers can go after the cyber grid, too. They can do it from a desktop. At no real cost. Potentially from anywhere in the world. With few if any clues left behind.

"From an attack standpoint, that's the cheapest form of attack with the lowest chance of being caught," said Doug Jacobson, a university professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State University. "It's asymmetrical warfare at its best. A single individual can cause enormous damage."

"It's not fair."

And it's real. Just last month, hackers knocked out dozens of Ukraine's power substations, blacking out more than a hundred cities and partially blacking out nearly 200 more.

To minimise the threat of that kind of attack, Jacobson and Manimaran Govindarasu, Iowa State's Ross Martin Mehl and Marylyne Munas Mehl computer engineering professor, are leading studies of grid cyber security while also training industry professionals and educating students to protect the nation's critical infrastructure.

A major part of their project is developing a high-fidelity, open-access testbed to help secure the power grid. They call it 'PowerCyber' and it's designed to do vulnerability analysis, risk assessment, attack-defence evaluations and other tests.

Manimaran Govindarasu and Doug Jacobson

Manimaran Govindarasu and Doug Jacobson, left to right, are leading studies of power grid cyber security, including development of the "PowerCyber" testbed. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

The power grid is a complex cyber-physical system, Govindarasu said. There are the communication networks with Internet connections, algorithms and software. Then there are the power lines, towers, sensors, relays, actuators and other hardware.

PowerCyber integrates all of those elements, including actual relay equipment and other hardware, then adds sophisticated models of the grid system and virtual Internet technology. That Internet technology is based on ISEAGE (pronounced 'ice age,' the Internet-Scale Event and Attack Generation Environment), a controlled, simulated Internet for cyber security studies. Jacobson developed the technology at Iowa State with support from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"We can use this testbed to run attacks and see the consequences on the power system," Govindarasu said. "If it's a blackout, how do we mitigate that? We can also prepare for these attacks and for our defences."

Industry, for example, could develop and test strategies for beating back repeated attacks.

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