Printed on: September 04, 2012

Hackers beware

INL unveils new cybersecurity tool

By Alex Stuckey

Keeping the lights on for millions of Americans could become easier for energy officials once a new set of cybersecurity tools developed in eastern Idaho are implemented.

Energy facilities, which provide oil, electricity and natural gas for the country, are now connected wirelessly. Idaho National Laboratory cybersecurity researchers have developed a new way to protect those connections from "malicious people" on the Internet, said Brent Stacey, Idaho National Laboratory associate lab director for the National and Homeland Security directorate.

"Originally, these systems were not interconnected, but now the design has changed," Stacey said. Power facilities are now connected by computer networks, which can be hacked -- potentially wreacking havoc on individuals' power and water across the country.

With Department of Energy funding, researchers at Idaho National Laboratory spent more than two years developing the Sophia situational awareness software, which can observe network connections both in real time and historically. It can then detect unusual activity and alert the operator. Researchers would not detail how much money was allocated to the project.

Researchers demonstrated how the new software works at INL's Center for Advanced Energy Studies on Friday.

By learning the system's normal functions and connections, Sophia can detect anything out of the ordinary and flag it. It allows the operator to determine whether that connection could be detrimental, said Misty Benjamin, an INL spokeswoman.

The connections are displayed on the screen as colored lines to help the operator visualize it, Benjamin said.

They named it Sophia, after the Greek goddess for wisdom.

"What used to take a week's worth of man hours can now be done in four," Benjamin said.

Nearly 30 energy facilities are currently testing the program, said David Kuipers, INL program manager of the National Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Test Bed Program. One such facility is Idaho Falls Power.

Although Jackie Flowers, director of the utility, doesn't believe Idaho Falls Power is a target for cyber attacks, she said it is important they are prepared for one.

"The reality is, folks are randomly hitting targets and we're talking about multimillion dollars worth of industry," Flowers said. "When we integrate (Sophia) into our systems, it does help to provide us with more cutting-edge ability."

Even though the testing phase is complete, the utility will continue to use the system as long as they are able.

INL officials will determine how to make this system available to the industry. Planned commercial licensing is scheduled for October 2012, according to INL's website.

"We need to protect the national industry control systems," Stacey said. "They're (now) potentially reachable from the Internet."

Alex Stuckey can be reached at 542-6755. Comment on this story on Post Talk at posttalk/.