National Labs bring emerging tech to bear on grid security

Shutterstock photo ID: 200726867 By chuyuss 

Federal researchers are looking to leverage quantum computing, artificial intelligence and dedicated networks to help shield electric grid networks from remote cyber attackers as well as physical exploits involving unauthorized access to infrastructure.

National lab researchers described their work to secure the nuts and bolts of grid infrastructure providers' communications networks using secured communications nodes, quantum-key encryption and isolated networks in presentations by the Energy Department's Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response's (CESER) research and development group.

Critical infrastructure Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems are a perennial target for hackers. According to a study released by threat monitoring firm Vectra on Nov. 1, there were almost 200 network hacking attempts for every 10,000 SCADA host devices.

Alongside electrical grid infrastructure carrying operational data, utilities deploy communications networks that could be used to disrupt service, according to national lab scientists speaking at CESER's Energy Delivery Systems program on Nov. 7.

"Fiber systems are relatively easy to tap. You put a bend in a cable, and the photons shoot right of there," Alia Long, lead development researcher in cyber-physical systems in Los Alamos National Lab's Advanced Research in Cyber Systems group, said in her presentation.

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab are looking into a machine-learning  tool that would help power companies detect and solve cyberattacks on their power distribution networks. The tool would use Google's DeepMind AI to figure out where to install cyber-hardened operational gear.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are in the midst of addressing an even more sweeping network infrastructure security measure. The lab just completed the first year of its "Darknet" research project that harnesses unused fiber optic cables already in place at electrical infrastructure providers' locations to relocate communications operations.

ORNL's Darknet project, begun last fall, is looking at how an energy delivery control system network could operate independently of the public internet, opening up a world where more advanced and strict security could be installed.

While such network could be used to make recordings of all communications on the system and conduct more intricate malware detection and analysis capabilities, ORNL's Peter Fuhr said that fiber capacity is increasingly in demand by companies.

The Darknet project has taken only a limited look at the specialized network, he said. In fiscal 2019 and 2020, he said, the project could connect with more power companies to expand its scope.

with more power companies to expand its scope.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


  • Congress
    Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) at the Hack the Capitol conference Sept. 20, 2018

    Jim Langevin's view from the Hill

    As chairman of of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committe and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is one of the most influential voices on cybersecurity in Congress.

  • Comment
    Pilot Class. The author and Barbie Flowers are first row third and second from right, respectively.

    How VA is disrupting tech delivery

    A former Digital Service specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs explains efforts to transition government from a legacy "project" approach to a more user-centered "product" method.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.