Using Digital Ants to Mitigate Power Grid Cyber Threats

The nation's electrical power grid is becoming increasingly interconnected through the internet, and while this technological sophistication provides significant benefits, it also comes hand-in-hand with considerable risk:

Enhanced interconnectivity means the power grid is now more vulnerable to cyber attacks.

Fortunately, researchers are now hard at work, designing safeguards to help protect the grid from computer viruses trying to wreak havoc on the system.

For instance, Errin Fulp, professor of computer science at Wake Forest University, is developing an army of "digital ants" that can scour computer networks looking for threats such as computer worms and self-replicating programs designed to steal information or facilitate unauthorized use of computers. When one of these digital ants detects a threat, it is designed to send for more ants to converge at that particular location, drawing the attention of human operators to investigate further.

"The idea is to deploy thousands of different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat," Fulp said in a press release. "As they move about the network, they leave digital trails modeled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants. Each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. Stronger scent trails attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection."

This summer Fulp and his students are teaming up with scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the University of California at Davis to try the digital ant technology on a large scale. So far, the approach has proven successful in testing, and it was named one of the "ten technologies that have the power to change our lives," by Scientific American magazine last year.

A report from earlier this year detailed just how important smart grid management can be. But, there's no doubt that mitigating the risks associated with internet integration must also be addressed.

What's more, as the press release concludes, if this digital ant approach proves successful in safeguarding the power grid, it could have wide-ranging applications. The digital ant approach could help protect anything connected to SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) networks, computer systems that control everything from water and sewer management systems to mass transit and manufacturing operations.

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