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Control system simulator teaches operators how to thwart hackers

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) have developed a simulator to help operators of chemical processing plants better understand the security issues of industrial control systems (ICSs). Future versions are being planned to simulate electric power grids, treatment facilities, and other manufacturing facilities.

By John Toon, Georgia Tech University August 27, 2018

Screen capture shows a chemical processing plant in which critical parameters are rising due to false process data and control commands injected by an attacker. Courtesy: Georgia Tech UniversityA simulator that comes complete with a virtual explosion could help operators of chemical processing plants—and other industrial facilities—learn to detect attacks by malicious hackers bent on causing mayhem. The simulator developed by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) also will help students and researchers better understand the security issues of industrial control systems (ICSs).

Facilities such as electric power networks, manufacturing operations, and water purification plants are among the potential targets for malicious actors because they use programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to open and close valves, redirect electricity flows, and manage large pieces of machinery. Efforts are underway to secure these facilities, and helping operators become more skilled at detecting potential attacks is a key part of improving security.

"The goal is to give operators, researchers, and students experience with attacking systems, detecting attacks, and also seeing the consequences of manipulating the physical processes in these systems," said Raheem Beyah, the Motorola Foundation professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. "This system allows operators to learn what kinds of things will happen. Our goal is to make sure the ‘good guys’ get this experience so they can respond appropriately."

A simulated chemical processing plant, known as the Graphical Realism Framework for Industrial Control Simulations (GRFICS), allows users to play the roles of both attackers and defenders—with separate views provided. The attackers might take control of valves in the plant to build up pressure in a reaction vessel and cause an explosion. The defenders have to watch for signs of attack and make sure security systems remain operational.

Of great concern is the "human-in-the-middle" attack in which a ‘bad actor’ breaks into the facility’s control system—and also takes control of the sensors and instruments that provide feedback to the operators. By gaining control of sensors and valve position indicators, the attacker could send false readings that would reassure the operators—while the damage proceeds.

Screen captures show a simulated explosion in a chemical processing plant precipitated by a cyberattack on the system. Courtesy: Georgia Tech University"The pressure and reactant levels could be made to seem normal to the operators, while the pressure is building toward a dangerous point," Beyah said. Though the readings may appear normal, however, a knowledgeable operator might still detect clues that the system has been attacked. "The more the operators know the process, the harder it will be to fool them," he said.

The GRFICS system was built using an existing chemical processing plant simulator, as well as a 3-D video gaming engine running on virtual Linux machines. At its heart is a software that runs PLCs, which can be changed to represent different types of controllers appropriate to a range of facilities. The human-machine interface also can be altered as needed to show operator control panel monitoring reaction parameters and valve controller positions.

"This is a complete virtual network, so you can set up your own entry detection rules and play on the defensive side to see whether or not your defenses are detecting the attacks," said David Formby, a Georgia Tech postdoctoral researcher who launched the company Fortiphyd Logic with Beyah to develop ICS products. "We provide access to simulated physical systems that allow students and operators to repeatedly study different parameters and scenarios."

This flow chart shows data flows within a simulated chemical processing facility. Courtesy: Georgia Tech UniversityGRFICS is available currently as an open-source, free download. It runs on a laptop, but because of heavy use of graphics, requires considerable processing power and memory. An online version is planned, and future versions will simulate the electric power grid, water, and wastewater treatment facilities, and other manufacturing facilities.

Formby hopes GRFICS will give more people experience with ICS security.

"We want to open this space up to more people," he said. "It’s very difficult now to find people who have the right experience. We haven’t seen many attacks on these systems yet, but that’s not because they are secure. The barrier for people who want to work in the cyber-physical security space is high right now, and we want to lower that."

Beyah and Formby have been working for several years to increase awareness of the vulnerabilities inherent in ICSs. While the community still has more to do, Beyah is encouraged.

"Several years ago we talked to a lot of process control engineers as part of the NSF’s I-Corps program," he said. "It was clear that for many of these folks then, security was not a major concern. But we’ve seen changes, and lots of people are now taking system security seriously."

John Toon, Georgia Institute of Technology. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Keywords: simulator, chemical engineering, PLC, cybersecurity

Georgia Tech researchers have developed a simulator designed to help operators of chemical processing plants.

The simulator helps operators better understand and prepare for attacks by hackers.

Future versions are being planned to simulate electric power grids, treatment facilities, and other manufacturing facilities.

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