System Simulator Helps Fight Hackers
August 31, 2018
simulator that comes complete with a virtual explosion could help the
operators of chemical processing plants – and other industrial
facilities – learn to detect attacks by hackers bent on causing mayhem.
The simulator will also help students and researchers understand better
the security issues of industrial control systems.
Facilities such as electric power networks, manufacturing operations and
water purification plants are among the potential targets for malicious
actors because they use programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to open
and close valves, redirect electricity flows and manage large pieces of
machinery. Efforts are underway to secure these facilities, and helping
operators become more skilled at detecting potential attacks is a key
part of improving security.
flow chart shows data flows within a simulated chemical processing
is to give operators, researchers and students experience with attacking
systems, detecting attacks and also seeing the consequences of
manipulating the physical processes in these systems,” said Raheem Beyah,
the Motorola Foundation Professor in the School of Electrical and
Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “This
system allows operators to learn what kinds of things will happen. Our
goal is to make sure the good guys get this experience so they can
Details of the simulator were presented August 8 at Black Hat USA 2018,
and August 13 at the 2018 USENIX Workshop on Advances in Security
Education. The simulator was developed in part by Atlanta security
startup company Fortiphyd Logic, and supported by the Georgia Research
The simulated chemical processing plant, known as the Graphical Realism
Framework for Industrial Control Simulations (GRFICS), allows users to
play the roles of both attackers and defenders – with separate views
provided. The attackers might take control of valves in the plant to
build up pressure in a reaction vessel to cause an explosion. The
defenders have to watch for signs of attack and make sure security
systems remain operational.
Of great concern is the “man-in-the-middle” attack in which a bad actor
breaks into the facility’s control system – and also takes control of
the sensors and instruments that provide feedback to the operators. By
gaining control of sensors and valve position indicators, the attacker
could send false readings that would reassure the operators – while the
“The pressure and reactant levels could be made to seem normal to the
operators, while the pressure is building toward a dangerous point,”
Beyah said. Though the readings may appear normal, however, a
knowledgeable operator might still detect clues that the system has been
attacked. “The more the operators know the process, the harder it will
be to fool them,” he said.
The GRFICS system was built using an existing chemical processing plant
simulator, as well as a 3D video gaming engine running on Linux virtual
machines. At its heart is the software that runs PLCs, which can be
changed out to represent different types of controllers appropriate to a
range of facilities. The human-machine interface can also be altered as
needed to show a realistic operator control panel monitoring reaction
parameters and valve controller positions.
“This is a complete virtual network, so you can set up your own entry
detection rules and play on the defensive side to see whether or not
your defenses are detecting the attacks,” said David Formby, a Georgia
Tech postdoctoral researcher who has launched Fortiphyd Logic with Beyah
to develop industrial control security products. “We provide access to
simulated physical systems that allow students and operators to
repeatedly study different parameters and scenarios.”
GRFICS is currently available as an open source, free download for use
by classes or individuals. It runs on a laptop, but because of heavy use
of graphics, requires considerable processing power and memory. An
online version is planned, and future versions will simulate the
electric power grid, water and wastewater treatment facilities,
manufacturing facilities and other users of PLCs.
Formby hopes GRFICS will expand the number of people who have experience
with the security of industrial control systems.
want to open this space up to more people,” he said. “It’s very
difficult now to find people who have the right experience. We haven’t
seen many attacks on these systems yet, but that’s not because they are
secure. The barrier for people who want to work in the cyber-physical
security space is high right now, and we want to lower that.”
Beyah and Formby have been working for several years to increase
awareness of the vulnerabilities inherent in industrial control systems.
While the community still has more to do, Beyah is encouraged.
“Several years ago, we talked to a lot of process control engineers as
part of the NSF’s I-Corps program,” he said. “It was clear that for many
of these folks then, security was not a major concern. But we’ve seen
changes, and lots of people are now taking system security seriously.”