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Securing the networks that power our world

David Tipper, Professor

Stopped subways, hacked personal data, and massive power outages all wreak havoc on our way of life. Secure, reliable communications play a vital role in preventing these disruptions and cyberattacks. All of society’s critical infrastructures—including transportation systems, power companies, and financial services—must be designed so data has multiple pathways to communicate. That way if one route fails, information can seamlessly switch to another route without interruption. This not only provides protection from malicious attacks, but it enables the constant exchange of real-time information, which has become an essential element of our daily lives.

The research conducted by David Tipper can help strengthen vital communications networks

For 25 years, the theme of most of David Tipper’s research has been the reliability of communications networks. During the last few years, he’s been looking at how to increase the security of those networks.

This type of research is getting increased attention for three reasons. First, every commercial enterprise needs to prevent their customers’ data from getting hacked. Second, the government is putting a greater emphasis on improving the cyber security of the power grid. Finally, sensors are being built into practically everything—cars, thermostats, natural gas pipelines, medical devices, etc.—and the data sent back and forth via these sensors needs to be secure.

One of Tipper’s research projects looks at how power companies can use a smart grid to develop a more efficient, more resilient, and more affordable way to distribute electrical power. A smart grid enables a two-way flow of power and information between utilities and consumers. This has the potential to reduce energy usage, yet one of the biggest challenges to the smart grid is the development of a secure communications network design.

“It use to be that the power grid didn’t need a communications network,” said Tipper. “Now it’s becoming an important part of all critical infrastructures. When your power or your subway depends on a communications network, it has to be reliable.”

Since smart grids systems use the public data network, they require extensive cyber security design work to guarantee real-time performance and continuous operations.

Communication networks are also vital to microgrids, which are small-scale power grids that can operate independently or in conjunction with the main electrical grid. Microgrids can be used to incorporate local power sources such as wind and solar with the main power grid. Tipper’s paper, “A Secure Communication Architecture for Distributed Microgrid Control,” published in IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid, shares research on a security protocol that supports broadcast, multicast, and unicast communications. This protocol provides data confidentiality and authentication while meeting the real-time communication needs within the microgrid.

In 2004, Tipper received a patent for an apparatus and method for spare capacity allocation.