NYU Tandon tapped by U.S. Department of Energy to fortify critical infrastructure

Keeping our power safe!

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In a bid to protect the nation's energy sector against cyber attacks, a team from NYU Tandon School of Engineering is creating a digital twin to help weed out threats and fix software and firmware vulnerabilities. If left unchecked, these weaknesses could allow ransomware attacks that could cause severe havoc to critical U.S. energy systems.

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) announced last month that it selected the project – dubbed Digital Twin for Security and Code Verification (DISCOVER) – for a three-year grant that delivers $4.8 million in total funding: $3.34 million in federal funds with the rest provided by DISCOVER’s participating institutions. 

The award is one of a cohort of 16 granted by DOE's Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER), in support of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda. The CESER projects aim to introduce new cybersecurity tools to reduce cyber risks and strengthen resilience of energy infrastructure including the power grid, utilities, pipelines and renewable energy sources.

Joining NYU Tandon on the DISCOVER team are collaborators from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC);  Pennsylvania State University; New York’s energy provider, Con Edison; and the cybersecurity firm Narf Industries. 

Led by the project’s Principal Investigator (PI) Farshad Khorrami, a professor in NYU Tandon’s Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department, DISCOVER will leverage a digital twin, a virtual simulation of real-world operational technology systems used in the energy industry, such as industrial control systems and programmable logic controllers. 

The digital twin allows the team to analyze and evaluate updates to software and firmware before they are deployed to actual devices in power systems, using advanced techniques like hybrid static-dynamic analysis, fuzzing, and anomaly detection to ensure security and functionality.

"Current cyber defenses can't necessarily catch stealthy malware in critical systems before deployment, potentially leaving a window open for bad actors to access our energy infrastructure," said Khorrami. "Our digital twin approach aims to shut that window. Because DISCOVER tests code virtually first, we can know about advanced threats like ransomware before they do damage. We share CESER’s commitment to developing the technologies that safeguard our energy systems today and tomorrow. We're grateful for their support."

Vital to the DISCOVER’s eventual real-world deployment is its collaboration with industry partners. Con Edison researchers, led by Chief Information Security Officer Mikhail Falkovich, will provide insights and operational testing for DISCOVER within the context of its power grid operations, and help ensure that the technology meets the practical needs of utility companies like theirs. 

"Keeping our energy infrastructure  secure is a top priority for Con Edison, and collaborating with NYU Tandon researchers on DISCOVER is in lockstep with that commitment,” said Falkovich. “We are proud to contribute to this vital research, using digital twin technology to construct a more robust suite of safeguards against cyber attacks."

Narf Industries will also play an integral part by defining a market transition path for DISCOVER. Michael Locasto, Narf’s Chief Technology Officer, will focus on refining the DISCOVER technology, delivering it as part of Narf’s CySER suite of OT Security services, and making it available to a broad set of utilities and asset owners with a wide variety of constraints and use cases.

“There is a tremendous opportunity to help amplify the impact of hard-pressed cyber defenders of OT systems across multiple energy sectors,” said Locasto. “One critical function is to rapidly analyze systems prior to deployment to derive cybersecurity behavior baselines, so that we can collectively have more trust in the operation of these devices under attack and knowledgeably and rapidly respond to active attacks like ransomware with confidence. The DISCOVER project’s research on novel digital twin technology reflects DOE CESER’s commitment to bolster our nation’s cybersecurity in the face of an increasingly uncertain world.”

DISCOVER’s other team members include Ramesh Karri, NYU Tandon ECE professor and co-founder and co-chair of the NYU Center for Cybersecurity; Prashanth Krishnamurthy, NYU Tandon ECE research scientist; Dinghao Wu, Dewey Walker Professor in College of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University; and Jian Huang, assistant professor and Y. T. Lo Faculty Fellow in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and an affiliated assistant Professor in computer science at the UIUC.

This latest CESER award contributes to NYU Tandon’s track record of working with federal, state and local governments to develop technologies that strengthen critical energy infrastructure. In 2022, Khorrami, Karri and Krishnamurthy received a $2.85 million award from CESER for a project called Tracking Real-time Anomalies in Power Systems (TRAPS) to detect and localize anomalies in power grid cyber-physical systems. Last month, the New York Power Authority announced it is working with NYU Tandon on a study to validate a technique that could potentially help the utility industry digitally monitor transformers to better detect problems without taking the units out of service.