Iowa Professor Creates ‘CyberPower’ to Protect Grid

After witnessing a cyberattack on the Ukrainian power grids, an Iowa State University professor took it upon himself to create a program to better protect the state's infrastructure.

by Julie Erickson, Ames Tribune, Iowa / January 29, 2016

(TNS) -- A cyberattack last month on many of Ukraine’s power substations left hundreds of cities blacked out.

Subsequently, countries around the world are toughening up their cybersecurity systems on the grid, and professors and students at Iowa State University are helping to improve security within the U.S.

Doug Jacobson, a university professor of electrical and computer engineering, said the grid could be at risk of a cyberattack because it is interconnected, as far as computer control, and the chance of causing a mass power outage could become a dramatic physical attack.

“If you were to shut down the Ames water plant, you affect Ames. That’s bad, but you affect Ames,” he said. “The power grid is so connected that an outage could affect Alliant, MidAmerica, Ames Municipal with one massive cyberattack. Due to the interconnection of the grid, a well-carried-out cyberattack could affect an extremely large area.”

Jacobson and Manimaran Govindarasu, ISU’s Ross Martin Mehl and Marylyne Mehl computer engineering professor, are helping industry professionals and students learn more about protecting the cybergrid through the creation of “PowerCyber.”

The testbed was developed with support from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Energy is supporting ISU cyberdefense projects. It incorporates multiple parts of the power grid, including communications networks, software, power lines, towers and more, and combines it with virtual Internet technology. The technology was based on the Internet-Scale Event and Attack Generation Environment (ISEAGE), a simulated Internet Jacobson developed with support from the U.S. Department of Justice.

ISEAGE has been used in previous Cyber Defense Competitions (CDCs) at ISU and in two weeks, Jacobson and ISU will host the country’s first Cyber-Physical System Cyber Defense Competition, which will also incorporate a software version of PowerCyber. The eight-hour competition will ask teams of students and industry professionals to protect their grid systems against cyberattacks.

While the CDC will include a software version of the testbed, Jacobson said students have access to 3-D printed city models as a way to visualize the power or water outages, and the full-scale facility incorporates the same physical equipment used by power companies to control substations.

“We can build a full model of the power grid all the way from cyber to modeling the physical effects of a generator going out. So that’s what makes this a rather unique testbed. It’s not all just software simulation, we’re doing some real modeling of the grid,” he said. “The beauty of what we’ve designed with this testbed is the ability to go down to an all-software version we could use at CDCs, or we’ve taken it to Washington to do training. But it goes all the way up to the full-scale facility, where we can do in-depth studies of the power grid.”

Matt Brown, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been researching with PowerCyber, and is helping to develop the upcoming CDC competition. By using the system, he said students and industry professionals could better understand security challenges like the Ukraine attack.

“It shows some of the worst impacts you could have from some kind of cyber security flaw,” he said. “In normal IT security, you’re talking about possible personal, financial information. There’s a lot of big impacts, but there’s a lot of shock value in the possibility of a physical result of a cyberattack. Hopefully, that kind of shock value will wake people up into taking some of the security problems in the power grid and starting to address them.”

Jacobson said the testbed can also help ISU students improve their job opportunities, as he said many large companies are looking for employees who have cybersecurity experience.

“Almost every manufacturing floor in the country is controlled by the same equipment that controls the power grid,” he said. “So they’re very interested in having students have this knowledge.”

©2016 the Ames Tribune, Iowa Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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