SCALABLE Networks CEO Spotlight: Securing Cyber-Physical Systems – Cyber-Hardening for Critical Infrastructure Systems

May 21, 2019 by The Scalable Team

The SCALABLE CEO Blog Series continues the important discussion around cyber resilience and cyber security today, with a piece authored by SCALABLE CEO Dr. Rajive Bagrodia. Bagrodia discusses the emergence of threats for cyber-physical systems and a proposed strategy to mitigate security breaches to the system. Stay tuned to the SCALABLE Tuesday Talk Blog Series for a continuous stream of valuable information in the areas of network simulation, cybersecurity, and predictable communications.

Cyber-Physical Systems (CPSs) are the new soft target for cyber criminals. A typical CPS includes a network of sensors, actuators and controllers connected to a remote operations center. CPS’s may include things such as power grids, autonomous vehicle systems, medical monitoring systems, process control systems, and aircraft autopilots. Many such CPS’s rapidly leverage Internet-connectivity to enhance operating efficiencies and to provide new services to their customers.  Unfortunately, the enhancements come with a serious downside – an increased susceptibility to cyber-attacks.  If successful, attacks on a CPS can cause wide-spread disruption of commerce and daily life.

The operations of a CPS (as well as Industrial Control Systems or SCADA systems) typically require regular communication and feedback between the sensors and the monitoring or control units; these interactions have stringent timing constraints. For example, the IEC61850 standard, which is the global standard for electrical substations, requires that certain control messages be delivered within 3 ms in order to protect the grid. Even minor perturbations to the timing or contents of such messages can cause serious repercussions. A message communication between a sensor located at a generator and the control center can be ‘hacked’, causing disruptions in service or equipment breakdowns.  If the contents of the message are corrupted, it can cause the CPS controller to under-estimate the quantity of power being generated. In another case, a ‘man-in-the-middle’ or denial-of-service attack might cause the loss or simply delayed receipt of a ‘shut down’ message from a controller to an actuator, possibly leading to cascading equipment malfunction on parts of the grid.

So how does the operator of a CPS assess its vulnerability to known and zero-day attacks to prevent a Ukraine-like scenario?  How can they assess what defensive mechanisms are most effective in blocking the attack or mitigating the impact of a successful penetration? Digital twins using advanced simulation technology offer a low-risk and high ROI solution by creating an integrated model of the communication network and the physical system. The digital twin is used to replicate specific environments in a lab where multiple “what if” scenarios can be quickly evaluated to assess the impact of a wide variety of cyber threats on operations of the CPS. Alternately, the network digital twin can be directly connected with live sensors and control units to provide a powerful training capability for operators to deal with potential cyber threats to critical infrastructures.

SCALABLE has developed EXata for Cyber-Physical Systems (EXata CPS) to support the creation of such digital twins. Specifically, EXata CPS integrates with OPAL-RT’s power simulators to allow synchronized emulation of communication systems and power grid components. Operators such as the New York Power Authority (NYPA), along with others, have successfully implemented the EXata solution to improve the efficiency of their infrastructure systems, while at the same time advancing the reliability of their grid.

Learn more about how EXata has been used to benefit our customers.

Written by Dr. Rajive Bagrodia. As founder and CEO of SCALABLE Network Technologies (SCALABLE), Dr. Bagrodia is a thought leader in the field of modeling and simulation, test and analysis, and assessment of the resiliency and impact of cyber threats on large scale networks.