Discrete and Process Automation

Report identifies engineering research priorities for “unhackable infrastructure”

27 February 2023

The Engineering Research Visioning Alliance (ERVA), a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded initiative, released a report outlining engineering research priorities to create research and development (R&D) and technology solutions to make infrastructure “unhackable.” The report challenges the engineering R&D community to develop proactive approaches rather than reactive measures that simply counteract identified threats. The aim is to fortify infrastructure security against a wide variety of adversarial threats while anticipating future technology developments and their security needs, including human-technology interfaces and quantum computing.

As technological advances provide more complex and connected tools and systems, such as real-time automation and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven autonomous agents, adversaries will be able to leverage vulnerable access points, increasing the potential for damage.

“Critical infrastructures of tomorrow will face an enormous array of adversarial threats,” said David Ott, senior researcher at VMware and co-chair of the ERVA Thematic Task Force that framed the visioning event. “Our goal is to identify research and development avenues in infrastructure security that will raise the bar on robustness and resilience and will redirect security from reactive to anticipatory. New approaches inSource: Texas Advanced Computing CenterSource: Texas Advanced Computing Center autonomous security and trustworthy architectures could be game-changing.”

To prevent and mitigate potentially catastrophic cyberattacks on infrastructure systems, participants considered gaps in today's security technologies and bold new ideas to steer future research toward innovation in cyber-physical systems. Visioning event participants asked what tomorrow's "unhackable infrastructure" could look like with big ideas — not just incremental advances — in engineering R&D.

This challenge was presented to a diverse array of experts, practitioners, and academics brought together by ERVA. At a visioning event held August 10-11, 2022, and held in the offices of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Industrial Liaison Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 35 researchers and technical experts from academia, government and industry identified engineering research priorities in five key areas:

  1. Human-technology interface considerations: Research should incorporate the human element and even recast the technical language from building secure “cyber-physical systems” to “cyber-physical-human systems.” The human interface is critical for computer system security modeling and design.
  2. Measuring and verifying security: Advances in measurement tools and metrics for tomorrow's infrastructure are sorely needed to support security risk evaluation, verification, automation and more.
  3. Future approaches to autonomous security: To address the complexity and scale of tomorrow’s infrastructure, research is needed for approaches in self-configuring, self-guiding and self-managing.
  4. New approaches to resilience in interdependent infrastructures: As infrastructure becomes more complex and interconnected, one vulnerable access point can potentially open a door for hackers to do great harm. Design approaches are needed to maintain safety, security and resilience at the systems level, even when a modular component is attacked.
  5. Architecting trustworthy systems: Design specifications, decentralized control, confidential computing and new infrastructure domains are priorities for research and development when considering how correctness of operation can be verified more robustly and built into system architectures and infrastructure.

“Anticipation and preparation for security threats to physical and virtual spaces has emerged as a critical national and international priority,” said Saurabh Amin, MIT associate professor and member of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), who served as the event’s Thematic Task Force co-chair. “The research priorities described in this report provide the necessary steps we must take to mitigate the economic and security threats inherent in cybercrime and secure both physical and virtual spaces.”

The aim of the report is to inspire researchers and sponsors in the public, private and non-profit sectors and lay the foundations for the high-impact, multidisciplinary engineering research necessary to mitigate the economic and security threats from cybercrime and secure both physical and virtual spaces.

Engineering R&D Solutions for Unhackable Infrastructure is the third report released by ERVA.

To contact the author of this article, email GlobalSpecEditors@globalspec.com

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