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MEDIA ADVISORY: Lights Out! Weak Networks Put Power Grids at Risk

Johns Hopkins Expert Can Discuss Recent Hacking Attacks—And How to Avert Them

June 19, 2017
CONTACT: Phil Sneiderman
Office: 443-997-9907; Cell: 410-299-7462
prs@jhu.edu On Twitter: @JHUmediareps

Two digital security firms in Maryland and Slovakia recently announced that they each had identified the malicious software that mysteriously infected a power station and shut down power to homes in Kiev, Ukraine, on a chilly night last winter. The unknown hackers are suspected of having links to Russia, and cybersecurity experts are worried that the relatively short outage in Kiev was just a trial run to determine whether the malware is ready to do more serious damage elsewhere. The two teams of investigators dubbed the malware “CrashOverride” and “Industroyer.”

Yair Amir

The startling vulnerability of the world’s power grid systems does not surprise Yair Amir, a professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science  in the Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering. In recent years, Amir has led teams of university and private tech researchers in developing digital tools to outwit malware that tries to take control of computer systems and networks, including the ones that manage power grids. He leads the university’s Distributed Systems and Networks Lab.

Amir said part of the problem is that many power grid systems today rely on internet protocol technology that exposes them to threats they were never designed to handle. In an interview last year, he said that, as a rule, networks are set up to trust that “members” showing the right credentials really are who they appear to be. That trust is easily exploited by saboteurs who manage to obtain valid member credentials. To combat such attacks, Amir said, the researchers on his team have created “technology that allows systems and networks to function correctly even when a part of them is compromised.”

His team has developed the Spire open source control system for power grids and made it available to help make these grids resilient to hackers’ attempts to seize control. In an exercise conducted earlier this year at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Sandia National Laboratories “attack team” was unable to shut down the test’s model power grid while it was protected by the Spire system developed by Amir and his colleagues.

Amir is available to talk to members of the media about power grid attacks and how they can be blocked. To arrange an interview, contact Phil Sneiderman at (410) 299-7462 or prs@jhu.edu.

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