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Awards bring recognition to more than a decade of INL cybersecurity work

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Courtesy INL

IDAHO FALLS — Four new technologies, produced by the Idaho National Lab, have been named in the top 100 revolutionary technologies of 2019, including one that dates its origin back to 9/11.

Consequence-driven Cyber-informed Engineering is a mouthful, but for those in the know, it perfectly describes the new methodology designed to protect the nation’s most critical infrastructures. The methodology is so groundbreaking that it is being recognized by the R&D 100 Awards.

“It’s another level, I think, of satisfaction to see that somebody, some authority outside the lab that’s watching R&D happen all around the country saying out of all the myriad projects that are happening in a bunch of different disciplines, ‘we recognize that yours is something truly special,'” INL Senior Cyber & Energy Security Strategist Andy Bochman said.

Bochman is one of the people behind CCE. He understands the name can be a bit much for the everyday person to grasp.

“People that know enough about (CCE) feel that (the name) says exactly what it is,” Bochman said. “But even some of the more technical people are aware that that’s asking a lot of folks to take on a compound hyphenated term like that.”

CCE is a methodology designed to protect critical infrastructures by identifying their vulnerabilities to cyberattacks. It helps to implement failsafe measures through engineering that will keep integral systems from failing.

Bochman said CCE accomplishes this through four steps.

“The first one is asking companies, starting at the CEO level, ‘how would you kill your company,'” he said.

He explained that means finding out the critical functions of the company, such as an electric company providing electricity. If those functions failed, the company would die.

“That’s called consequence prioritization. It’s not about cybersecurity everything, it’s about identifying the handful of things that must be protected better than they currently are,” Bochman said.

Once that is determined, the next steps are to identify all the systems throughout the company that support those essential functions and figure out different ways a cyberattacker could exploit those systems and cause those functions to fail.

The final step is to engineer failsafe measures to protect those functions.

“That often means not relying on computer defenses, but actually putting in engineered defenses which rely on physics to prevent the damage or destruction of important pieces of mechanical equipment,” Bochman said.

Michael Assante, one of the “godfathers” of CCE, passed away in July of this year, but he told Bochman the idea behind it came from the aftermath of 9/11.

“The U.S. government noticed that we were totally blindsided by the way that attack happened. We never really thought planes could be used that way. Like, it was so out of the box,” he said. “After 9/11, there was sort of a skunkworks project inside the government and relying on experts from inside and outside the government to say, ‘what else? What other approaches could terrorist groups or other nations take that we totally are not prepared for?'”

Assante worked on this and other similar projects throughout the early 2000s. He and others found that a lot of damage could be done through cyberattacks on the United States power grid.

“That’s when Mike and a small group around him eventually coalesced at the Idaho National Lab,” Bochman said.

Bochman explained that work on CCE really took off in 2007 when Assante and his team with the expertise in cybersecurity at INL came together.

“In the last five years or so, that’s when we started to go from theory and concept to practical application,” he said.

Assante’s work on CCE was so in-depth that as the team continues to work on it, Bochman says it still feels like Assante is there with them.

“He’s sort of alive for us still in that every day we’re working with materials and concepts that come from him. It’s almost like we’re having a continuing conversation with him as we’re bringing this work that he started to fruition,” Bochman said.

Since 2005, INL has received 22 R&D 100 Awards. The awards celebrate research and development technologies from across the private and public sectors with companies and laboratories submitting entries every year. The other three R&D 100 Awards the INL received are N-meter, HTIR-TCA and WiFIRE.

  • N-meter is a device used for calibrating electronic neutron generators. Electronic neutron generators are used to detect harmful materials used in chemical, radiological and explosive attacks. The N-meter ensures the generator’s readings are accurate.
  • HTIR-TCA can accurately read the temperature of the fuel at a nuclear reactor’s core. It was previously difficult to get accurate temperature readings from a reactor core due to the extreme heat and radiation, forcing scientists to rely on estimates. HTIR-TC will help make reactors safer and more reliable.
  • WiFIRE monitors wireless networks in real-time. This allows users to respond to network breaches as they happen. WiFIRE can also alert law enforcement, block unwanted data transmission, start data and video recordings for possible legal use, and help locate intruders before damage is done.
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