Dr. Sibin Mohan, Associate Professor in the Computer Science Department at GW, is working extensively on the topic of security in critical systems. He is a part of the team led by Dr. Katherine Davis, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University, that is working on protecting the power grid through cyber-physical threat response. The project is supported by the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response in the Department of Energy (DOE) and additional team members are Dr. Saman Zonouz of Georgia Institute of Technology and Dr. Rakesh Bobba of Oregon State University.
Grids are physical systems while a cell phone is a cyber system. Put them together and they become a cyber-physical system for they are no longer purely one or the other and instead must work closely in collaboration. A power grid is an example of a cyber-physical system that is especially vulnerable to attacks. For example, in 2015 Ukraine faced the first confirmed cyber attack on power grids that caused a power outage for six hours in some areas of the country.
To better defend against cyber-physical threats, Mohan and his fellow researchers will utilize information from both cyber and physical systems alongside models with artificial intelligence (AI) to provide a solution for electric power utilities to quickly and effectively protect themselves. This method will produce a solution that uses both physics and AI to its advantage in order to achieve a coordinated cyber-physical response.
The response mechanism of power grids is critical to remaining resilient against attacks. Its importance was clearly demonstrated in the Colonial Pipeline cyber incident in May 2021 when a ransomware attack caused the company to proactively shut down its entire pipeline system for six days.
However, the team will not only aid in developing more effective responses and defense from attacks but in preventing them as well. Mohan’s focus area in the project will be taking software from the power grid and analyzing it to determine which parts are essential. The more code there is the easier it is to attack, so by utilizing a framework that strips the code that is unnecessary he will enhance the security of the grid without harming the system.
A key focus area of the DOE is the scalability of these working prototypes because they are concerned with making this work translatable to all electric power utility service providers. Therefore, this project will be a multidisciplinary effort as the researchers will be working directly in the industry by conducting tests with real-world equipment and receiving feedback from those systems.
“Due to working so closely with the energy industry I anticipate that we will see exciting, significant and impactful results from this project,” Mohan stated.