October 28, 2020

Researchers Developing Tool to Protect Electric Utilities From Cyber Attacks

Researchers Developing Tool to Protect Electric Utilities From Cyber Attacks




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Qinghua Li

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A University of Arkansas-led research team has been awarded $2.7 million from the Department of Energy to use artificial intelligence to protect energy companies from cyberattacks.

The project is led by Qinghua Li, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering, and includes researchers from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Network Perception, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, and Vistra Energy Corporation.

The team will develop a tool called AVIRA, for Automated Vulnerability Intelligence and Risk Assessment.

Utility companies spend a lot of time and resources keeping their cybersecurity systems up to date, Li said, and it’s a never-ending task.

As hackers look for new ways to break into security systems, companies install system updates for keeping them out. Those updates are known as patches, and once a security vulnerability in the system is found, a patch is usually needed to fix it.

Depending on the severity of the vulnerability, patch installation must be prioritized, so security teams must spend time analyzing which patches should be installed, and when. Patch installation eats up a tremendous amount of time for security personnel, and the stakes are high to get it right.

AVIRA will automate the risk assessment process for electric utilities based on their operation context, allowing employees to spend much less time in the analysis phase and mitigate high-risk vulnerabilities more efficiently. The tool is designed to be accessible for companies, Li said.

“AVIRA will deploy with minimal resources and will be designed to make the most of constrained human resources by automating as much of the data collection and analysis as possible,” he said.

Industry partners on the project said the tool will address a critical need.

“AVIRA addresses a very important industry need,” said Phil Clark, director of corporate security at the project’s industry partner Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation. “This project will enable energy companies to gain immediate insight into potential risk exposure from software vulnerabilities and equip them with the information needed to secure their systems. AECC considers AVIRA to be a valuable tool.”

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among fewer than 3 percent of colleges and universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.



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