Meet the digital ghost in the machine

Time was, outages on the power grid were the result of downed tree limbs. Trees and branches are still an issue, but power companies increasingly are worried about hackers and computer viruses. To wit, the ominously named malware Black Energy took out a grid in Ukraine in 2015 and caused 800,000 people to lose power. The digital threat is only increasing — year over year, cyberattacks on industrial control systems have increased by 55 percent.

Most computers have some kind of antivirus software today, but protecting control systems from hackers requires a completely different approach, says Justin John, a controls engineer who leads the controls algorithms team at GE’s Global Research labs in Niskayuna, New York. That’s why he and his team are developing the “Digital Ghost.”

John says the software is the industrial version of an immune system — an invisible presence in GE’s machines that keeps watch 24/7. It uses sensors and controls to detect, locate and neutralise threats much like the body responds to viruses.

The night watch machinery support
Top and above: GE’s John says the software is the industrial version of an immune system. Images credit: Getty Images

Designing it, the team applied the old adage that the best defense is offense. “In cybersecurity, finding new ways to protect critical industrial assets from cyber threats is a never-ending job,” John said. “With Digital Ghost, we’re creating brand new layer of defense and offense that will protect the brains of these cyberphysical systems and even neutralise threats.”

There will be some 50 billion things connected to the internet by 2020, according to Cisco. As physical assets become more digitally driven, the need for technologies like Digital Ghost will only increase, said Lalit Mestha, a principal engineer leading the Digital Ghost program. “The integration of digital technologies into the industrial world are transforming it and opening up an abundance of new growth opportunities for companies and dramatic improvements in the overall quality of life people can live,” Mestha said. “But in parallel, we must remain vigilant in developing new and better ways to protect and sustain the operation of these assets from being compromised, as is the case in the human body.”

Mestha and John are giving their Digital Ghost a layer capable of learning about intruders much like the immune system’s killer T-cells. When it detects a threat, it will pounce. Says John: “In the world of cybersecurity, there are no such things as guarantees. But adding new layers of protection such as Digital Ghost will ensure we are putting our strongest effort forward.”

This article originally appeared on the US edition of GE Reports.

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