Building availability assurance in safety-critical cyberphysical systems

Ning Zhang to investigate software system availability for cyberphysical system with NSF CAREER Award

Beth Miller 
Ning Zhang will evaluate threats to the availability of cyberphysical systems with a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. (iStock photo)
Ning Zhang will evaluate threats to the availability of cyberphysical systems with a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. (iStock photo)

In May 2021, the Colonial Pipeline, which transports nearly half of fuel consumed on the East Coast, experienced a cyberattack that affected its operations for several days, making it the largest cyberattack of its kind in the U.S. For safety-critical, real-time cyberphysical systems, from critical energy infrastructure that provides the daily necessity to pacemaker implants that save lives, staying correct and responsive in the presence of cyberattacks is essential.

Ning Zhang, assistant professor of computer science & engineering and an expert in cyberphysical system security, plans to address threats to the availability of these systems with a five-year, nearly $521,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. The NSF CAREER awards support junior faculty who model the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellence in education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization. One-third of current McKelvey Engineering faculty have received the award. 

Zhang will address threats to availability in different layers of the system stack, from the underlying operating system to the safety-critical and nonsafety-critical processes. He will look at three key areas: generalized system availability assurance on heterogeneous hardware platform; software availability through information flow analysis and selective recovery; and performance interference and isolation. 

“For many cyberphysical systems, a delayed response in the cyber world can lead to catastrophic failures in the physical world,” Zhang said. “If you don’t get access to a computer document for 5 seconds, it’s not a problem, but if you don’t get access to a self-driving car or a surgical robot for 5 seconds, bad things can happen. Therefore, it is important that the security system also protects availability.” 

To build that type of system, Zhang said he and his team will look at the system from an attacker’s perspective.

“Based on the adversary’s capability in the three layers of abstractions, we’ll analyze the unique vectors on the attack surface — how many different weaknesses an attacker can take advantage of,” he said. “Building on top of the security analysis of the attacker, we will then develop the new theory and system to thwart the attacks.”

In addition to health care, self-driving cars and energy production, among others, Zhang said this research becomes more important as these cyberphysical systems become pervasive in our society.

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 165 full-time faculty, 1,420 undergraduate students, 1,614 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

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