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about bruno sinopoli

Bruno SinopoliBruno Sinopoli is an assistant professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering. His research interest focuses on the analysis and design of networked embedded control systems, with applications to sensor actuators networks.

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CyLab Chronicles

Q&A with Bruno Sinopoli (2008)

posted by Richard Power

CyLab Chronicles: What is a Cyber-Physical System (CPS)? And how do the unique properties of the CPS impact security? Give some industry and/or government examples.

SINOPOLI: Cyber-Physical System is a novel terminology used to refer to systems which integrate a cyber component, i.e. information and communication technology, into a dynamical control system. Such systems are becoming pervasive, thanks to the advances in sensing, computing and networking technology. We are now able to embed the world with networks of sensors and actuators, allowing one to observe the physical environment and act on it with unprecedented accuracy, both spatial and temporal. Built environments, transportation infrastructures, industrial plants, utility networks can greatly benefit from the use of cyber-physical system technology. Buildings can be made more energy efficient, safer and more secure; power systems can predict load changes, quickly respond to them to guarantee better load/generation balancing.
Together with advantages come threats. Attacks on the information and communication infrastructure can have disastrous effect on the physical infrastructure. An intrusion in a chemical plant, for example, could disrupt the physical infrastructure, potentially causing great economic and environmental damage and loss of human life.

CyLab Chronicles: How does CPS security compare with IT security? What is similar? What is different? What IT security approaches can be shared? What kind of approaches need to be developed uniquely for CPS?

SINOPOLI: IT security is definitely an important part of CPS security. CPS is likely to suffer from the same kinds of threats as IT systems, such as denial of service or data integrity attacks. Some of the standard approaches used to guarantee security in IT may be effective also in CPS. On the other hand, a CPS has to face a larger set of attacks vectors, due to its strong coupling with the physical world. Delaying packets of a few seconds, or disrupting time synchronization between communicating components are examples of harmful attacks to CPS. Detection schemes, survivability solutions and restoration techniques need to be rethought in this scenario. The coupling between cyber and physical domains presents new challenges and offer new opportunities at the same time. CPS requires that continuity of operations is guaranteed. Dynamical systems have inertia and cannot be suddenly brought to a halt. New methodologies are needed both at design and run time to address this issue. CPS presents several opportunities for early detection of attacks. Model based approaches can be used. Prediction of system behavior can help identifying anomalies and inconsistencies in data, which may point to either faults or attacks. In the same way attacks will take time to propagate, providing an opportunity for timely detection and response.

CyLab Chronicles: What problems in this space does your research address? What challenges is your research aimed at overcoming?

SINOPOLI: I am interested in characterizing security and robustness for CPS. This entails defining CPS specific threat models, model based detection schemes and recovery algorithms based on resource reconfiguration. I am also interested in developing analytical tools to predict performance degradation and provide security guarantees with respect to different classes of attacks.

CyLab Chronicles: What commercial applications do you see your research contributing to?

SINOPOLI: My goal is to set new standards for the security of critical infrastructures, such as power, gas and water distribution networks, transportation systems and built environments. Among the target applications, I believe that Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems are likely to greatly benefit from advances in CPS security. SCADA systems are Process Control Systems (PCS) that monitor and control critical infrastructure such as the electric power, natural gas, oil, water and waste-water distribution and transmission systems. They are distributed systems consisting of a central master station and human machine interface (HMI), Remote Terminal Units (RTUs) connected to sensors and actuators, and a communications infrastructure. SCADA systems have historically been designed without any information security considerations. The use of private networks and proprietary protocols has provided some level of “security by obscurity” in the past. Clearly, this is not sufficient to secure systems that control critical infrastructure. Nowadays, SCADA systems are increasingly being connected to the corporate IT infrastructure and Internet, making them vulnerable to a remote attacker. It is imperative that these systems be secured as their compromise could have severe consequences.


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