A team of researchers from Concordia University has received a $2.1-million grant to shed light on new ways of protecting Quebec’s high-tech power grid system from cyber attacks.
“This is of paramount importance,” said Mourad Debbabi, the Concordia University research chair in information security systems who was named principal chairholder of the Senior Industrial Research Chair in Smart Grid Security, Detection, Prevention, Mitigation and Recovery from Cyber-Physical Attacks. “There are vulnerabilities and threats that can lead to major consequences.”
The five-year grant to bolster research into cybersecurity and power systems was awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Debbabi will lead a team of some 25 researchers, working along industry co-sponsors Hydro-Québec and Thales, to lead the charge in what is still an emerging area of cybersecurity.
Their goal will be to make the smart grids of the province’s power supplier more secure, Debbabi said.
“This is happening, it’s already a concern,” he said in an interview after the official NSERC announcement Thursday.
Blackouts caused by malicious hacks are not reserved for sci-fi stories. A power outage in Ukraine last December that affected 230,000 customers was the result of a cyber attack — and was believed to be the first known successful cyber intrusion to knock a power grid offline.
An investigation into the unprecedented attack by Wired magazine described how operators of a power control centre could just watch helplessly as hackers seized control of their computer cursors and took down 30 substations and two power distribution centres.
“Cybersecurity is something that interests us a lot,” said Jérôme Gosset, general manager of IREQ, Hydro-Québec’s research institute, acknowledging that Hydro-Québec’s system is becoming increasingly automated and that integrating more intelligence into the network does mean increased cybersecurity challenges.
“Ensuring continuity of service is important to us,” he said.
Debbabi said it’s important to understand as much as possible about the “threat landscape.” Research will focus on prevention as well as how to detect, mitigate and recover from such attacks.
Siegfried Usal, vice-president of strategy for Thales, said the partnership with Concordia will allow the cybersecurity company to explore more ways of guaranteeing “network resilience in the face of emerging threats.”
Concordia has seven full-time faculty members with expertise in cybersecurity.
The grant will cement Concordia’s leadership in a new area of research, Debbabi said, and will improve the overall security of Quebec’s power system.
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