UK centre to study threat of industry cyber-attacks

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Researchers investigating how to avert cyber-attacks on the UK’s industry and infrastructure are to gain a new home at Imperial College London.

The newly announced Research Institute into Trustworthy Industrial Control Systems at Imperial College London will explore how malevolent hackers, viruses and other threats from the internet could shut down the industrial control systems that run power stations, transport systems and factories.  

‘Our Industrial Control Systems are vital for running most of the industrial processes that underpin modern society,’ said Prof Chris Hankin, who will direct the new institute.   ‘From electricity generation to making sure trains run on time, these systems are vital to our everyday lives, but more work needs to be done to determine how vulnerable they are threats from cyber-attack.  

‘Research at Imperial’s Institute will focus on working out what the potential dangers are, so that new technologies and procedures can be designed to mitigate them in the future.’   Such control systems have increasingly been connected to the internet, enabling them to be maintained remotely and providing engineers with more information about how they are operating, but also making them more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.  

The systems are also required to operate continuously for months at a time, making it more difficult to regularly install upgrades or ‘patches’ to prevent attacks on software. By comparison, patches for IT networks are done daily. Researchers at the Institute will look into how these systems can be made more robust without impacting on operations.  

‘In 2007, parts of Estonia ground to a halt when it experienced a ‘denial of service’ cyber-attack, overloading servers, which lead to a temporary government shutdown,’ said Hankin. ‘While this is an extreme example, it highlights how vulnerable countries are to these types of threats.’  

The researchers will also identify how a lone cyber-attack on one business or utility could have a knock-on effect –­ affecting groups of businesses ‘downstream’ and impacting the UK’s entire infrastructure – and investigate ways that these threats can be avoided through the development of better procedures and technologies.  

The Institute is jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Cabinet Office. Prof David Delpy, chief executive of the EPSRC, said: ‘We need to ensure that the UK has the capability to protect both our physical and virtual assets and to do this we must develop outstanding individuals, support the best projects and make the most of the opportunities that the online environment can deliver for our economy.’