The Constrained Cyber Communication Device, running tests at Idaho National Laboratory.

Researchers from Idaho National Laboratory are developing a technology that can help protect the country from cyberattacks that impact the nation’s electric power grid.

The lab announced in a Tuesday news release that INL researchers are working with the New Mexico-based {span}technology consulting firm{/span} Visgence to design and demonstrate the technology’s effectiveness.

The technology is called the Constrained Cyber Communication Device (C3D). Researchers tested the device during a recent live demonstration at INL’s Critical Infrastructure Test Range Complex, where the device was tested against a series of remote access attempts indicative of a cyberattack.

According to the release, the device alerted operators to the abnormal commands during the test and blocked them automatically, preventing the attacks from gaining access to critical power grid components and damaging them.

“Protecting our critical infrastructure from foreign adversaries is a key component in the department’s national security posture,” said Patricia Hoffman, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, in the release. “It’s accomplishments like this that expand our efforts to strengthen our electric system against threats while mitigating vulnerabilities. Leveraging the capabilities of Idaho National Laboratory and the other national laboratories will accelerate the modernization of our grid hardware, protecting us from cyberattacks.”

Cyberattacks from foreign adversaries have become a growing concern in the U.S. In June, the Associated Press reported that the White House called for more cooperation on cyber defenses between public and private industries.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told the Associated Press that American adversaries have the capability now of shutting down the U.S. power grid and there are thousands of attacks on all aspects of the energy sector and private sector at any given moment.

In 2021, a cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline caused gasoline shortages and price increases the operator of the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S. The world’s largest meat supplier JBS USA also was attacked and had to temporarily suspend operations.

“As cyberattacks against the nation’s critical infrastructure have grown more sophisticated, there is a need for a device to provide a last line of defense against threats,” said INL program manager Jake Gentle in the release. “The C3D device sits deep inside a utility’s network, monitoring and blocking cyberattacks before they impact relay operations.

Cyberattacks have impacted some local systems in recent years. A cyberattack in 2019 shut down computer servers for Sugar-Salem School District 322 and Bingham County paid more than $3,000 to a ransomware attack in 2017.

The C3D device is capable of autonomously reviewing and filtering commands being sent to protective relay devices. Relays are crucial to the nation’s power grid and are designed to rapidly command breakers to turn off the flow of electricity when a disturbance is detected, according to the release.

Researchers spent nearly a year collaborating with industry experts to test the C3D device’s effectiveness. INL also collaborated with the Department of Energy to establish an industry advisory board consisting of power grid and cybersecurity experts from across the federal government, private industry and academia.

The development of the device was funded by the energy department’s Office of Electricity under the Protective Relay Permission Communication project. INL says further testing is needed over the next several months before the technology is made available for licensing to private industry.

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