Electronic voiceprint technology designed to improve network security

Researchers have developed an approach using an electronic voiceprint to improve network security for industrial control systems (ICSs) in oil and gas refineries, manufacturing facilities, wastewater treatment plants and other critical industrial systems.

By Gregory Hale, ISSSource April 29, 2016

A voice is as unique as a fingerprint, and an "electronic voice" could help boost network security. By identifying the voice of devices on electrical grid control networks, it could be possible to determine which signals are legitimate and which signals might be from attackers. That approach could end up protecting industrial control systems in oil and gas refineries, manufacturing facilities, wastewater treatment plants, and other critical industrial systems.

While device fingerprinting isn’t a complete solution in itself, the technique could help address security challenges of the electrical grid and other cyber-physical systems. Researchers have successfully tested this approach in two electrical substations.

"We have developed fingerprinting techniques that work together to protect various operations of the power grid to prevent or minimize spoofing of packets that could be injected to produce false data or false control commands into the system," said Raheem Beyah, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "This is the first technique that can passively fingerprint different devices that are part of critical infrastructure networks. We believe it can be used to significantly improve the security of the grid and other networks."

Networked systems controlling the U.S. electrical grid and other industrial systems often lack the ability to run modern encryption and authentication systems, and the legacy systems connected to them never had security designed into them.

Because they are distributed around the country, often in remote areas, the systems are also difficult to update via patching. On the electric grid, keeping the power on is a priority, so security can’t cause delays or shutdowns.

"The stakes are extremely high, but the systems are very different from home or office computer networks," Beyah said. "It is critical that we secure these systems against attackers who may introduce false data or issue malicious commands."

Beyah, his students, and colleagues in Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering set out to develop security techniques that take advantage of the unique physical properties of the grid and the consistent type of operations.

For instance, control devices used in the power grid produce signals that are distinctive because of their unique physical configurations and compositions. Security devices listening to signals traversing the grid’s control systems can differentiate between these legitimate devices and signals produced by equipment that’s not part of the system.

Another aspect of the work takes advantage of simple physics.

Devices such as circuit breakers and electrical protection systems can end up told to open or close remotely, and they then report on the actions taken. The time required to open a breaker or a valve is determined by the physical properties of the device. If an acknowledgement arrives too soon after the issued command—less time than it would take for a breaker or valve to open—the security system could suspect spoofing, Beyah said. 

Grid modeling

To develop the device fingerprints, the researchers, including mechanical engineering assistant professor Jonathan Rogers, built computer models of utility grid devices to understand how they operate. Information to build the models came from "black box" techniques—watching the information that goes into and out of the system—and "white box" techniques that utilize schematics or physical access to the systems.

"Device fingerprinting is a unique signature that indicates the identity of a specific device, or device type, or an action associated with that device type," Beyah said. "We can use physics and mathematics to analyze and build a model using first principles based on the devices themselves. Schematics and specifications allow us to determine how the devices are actually operating."

The researchers plan to continue refining their technique until they become close to 100% accurate. Their current technique addresses the protocol used for more than half of the devices on the electrical grid, and future work will include examining application of the method to other protocols.

Because they also include devices with measurable physical properties, Beyah believes the approach could have broad application to securing industrial control systems used in manufacturing, oil and gas refining, wastewater treatment and other industries.

Beyond industrial controls, the principle could also apply to the Internet of Things (IoT), where the devices being controlled have specific signatures related to switching them on and off.

"All of these IoT devices will be doing physical things, such as turning your air-conditioning on or off," Beyah said. "There will be a physical action occurring, which is similar to what we have studied with valves and actuators."

Gregory Hale is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (ISSSource.com), a news and information website covering safety and security issues in the manufacturing automation sector. This content originally appeared on ISSSource.com. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control Engineering, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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