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U.K. Invests Heavily in ICS Cyber Security Research

Several universities in the United Kingdom have set out to conduct new research into the cyber security of the country's vital industrial control systems (ICS), thanks to significant new funding.

Industrial control systems such as the ones used in manufacturing plants, power stations, the electricity grid and rail networks are increasingly targeted by threat actors, and more and more countries have begun to recognize that the effects of a successful cyberattack could be devastating.

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The new research being conducted in the United Kingdom, which benefits from a total investment of £2.5 million (roughly $4 million), is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which is the country's main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences, and the UK's National Cyber Security Programme. The research is actively supported by the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) and the intelligence agency GCHQ.

 According to EPSRC, the Research Institute in Trustworthy Industrial Control Systems (RITICS) at the Imperial College London is coordinating four research projects conducted at the City University of London, Queen's University of Belfast, the University of Birmingham, and Lancaster University.

"Where control systems are linked to the internet we need to understand how failures could cascade across the system. We will be looking at new ways of repairing damage to systems if an attack happens," commented Professor Chris Hankin of RITICS. "We need to address how to approach network maintenance for industrial control systems, particularly as most systems operate on a 24/7 basis. So we will be looking at how we can ensure better protection without compromising performance."

 Each of the participating universities will study a certain area with the aid of industry partners, EPSRC said. The University of Birmingham will work on developing a systematic evaluation process for threats to ICS. Their research will focus on the security of rail and power systems.

 "The project will produce a systems engineering inspired analysis method that can be applied to critical infrastructure systems. This will take the form of a process that can be followed by industry and software modelling tools that allow susceptible subsystems to be identified, and solutions to be recommended. The approach will be applicable to both rail and power systems. Within the grant, the research team will work with industry to trial and validate the approach," said Clive Roberts, a professor at the University of Birmingham.

 The research at the City University of London, led by Professor R. Bloomfield, will focus on communicating and evaluating cyber risk and dependencies, while the Lancaster University will concentrate its efforts on providing decision makers with metrics to understand the business risks posed by ICS security breaches.

The Queen's University in Belfast will attempt to find the best approach to resilient ICS with focus on the national grid.

"Presently, Ireland frequently operates with over 50 per cent of electricity supplied by wind generation. Operating the system with such high levels of renewable generation is a challenge, and requires complex wide area monitoring and control," explained Professor Sakir Sezer. "Should the telecoms systems that support the control system be compromised, the impact of the resultant loss of electricity supply would have far-reaching consequences for society. This would involve loss of consumer supply, supply to hospitals, industry, and would even affect the gas, water and sewage networks."

The Queen's University grant ends on December 31, 2016, while the others end on September 30, 2017. 

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Eduard Kovacs is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.