URC Profile

Cybersecurity: Protecting Michigan’s Infrastructure From Attack

As computer networks integrate further with the state’s critical infrastructure, Michigan becomes more vulnerable to cyberattack. A successful cyberattack on the power grid could black out a city or cause fatalities through interference with life-saving medical devices. In a worst-case scenario, nuclear power plant security mechanisms lie open to attacks that could release harmful radiation into the environment. The potential for these events clearly illustrates the ever-increasing importance of strong cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity is the practice of ensuring the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of digital information. To protect Michigan’s infrastructure, researchers from MSU, U-M, and WSU study how cyberattacks work, provide innovative training to professionals, and design systems with greater immunity to cyberattacks. These universities, in partnership with the Merit Network and the State of Michigan, are growing a pool of highly skilled professionals with the knowledge and experience to execute strong cybersecurity strategies for large, complex organizations.

Known as the Michigan Cyber Range (MCR), this training effort brings together URC universities and other institutions to teach cybersecurity professionals how to detect, prevent, and mitigate cyberattacks in real-world situations, increasing our understanding of how these attacks might work. Funded by the Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment with matching funding from state and regional partners through the Advance Michigan Defense Collaborative (AMDC), the MCR partnership uses a unique hub strategy to provide training, during which users conduct simulations to test their decision-making and reaction skills and timing. The hub strategy offers cutting-edge cybersecurity training, meeting local communities’ growing demand via publicly accessible locations.

WSU is helping to lead the way and opened a Cyber Range Hub in 2017 at their Advanced Technology Education Center in Macomb County. “This Cyber Range Hub is an exciting collaboration among public institutions, the government, and private industry,” said Wayne State provost Keith Whitfield. “Working with partners at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the AMDC, and the Merit Network, we’ve created a cybersecurity lab to bring together educators and industry for the betterment of southeastern Michigan” (Reynolds 2017).

Courses on the WSU Cyber Range Hub have been designed to allow remote participation, so students across the state can enroll in these courses and interact with instructors in real-time during lectures. “The installation of a Cisco Endpoint in our Cyber Range Hub enables students to have a remote in-class experience, allowing us to scale up the training to meet the growing cybersecurity needs of the state,” said Loren Schwiebert, Chair of the Department of Computer Science at WSU.

Like all Cyber Range Hubs, WSU’s contains computing and networking infrastructure, and provides training exercises, secure software testing, and certification courses for over 20 cybersecurity disciplines for corporate partners. At the hub, IT professionals can acquire valuable hands-on experience and test their skills within the MCR’s reactive, cloud-based training environment, Alphaville. Organizations can also lease space within the Merit Secure Sandbox, a digital environment in which users can experiment with cybersecurity exercises and software testing. According to Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs at WSU, “This hub will allow us to expand our offerings in cybersecurity to students, as well as professional development training clients and secure software testing for our corporate partners. We look forward to developing graduate, undergraduate, and nondegree programs focused on cybersecurity, and preparing our students to be leaders in this growing industry” (Merit Network n.d.).

This regional hub, along with the hub at Pinckney Community High School, allows for technological innovation and cybersecurity resources to be embedded in Southeast Michigan communities. This placement provides a place where local communities and the public can learn innovative ways to protect their data and promote the free exchange of ideas and services. These hubs can help meet the growing needs of individuals, businesses, and community organizations better understand and respond to the threat of cyberattacks.

In mid-Michigan, MSU professor of computer science and engineering Richard Enbody, author of one of the most complete texts on targeted cyberattacks, leads the charge toward better understanding of these unique threats.

Enbody’s research in ransomware and other cyberassaults explores attackers’ methodologies and uses this information to identify system weaknesses. He shares lessons learned with private and public organizations to help them mount more effective defenses against cyberattacks.

At the University of Michigan, researchers, with funding support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, are developing an unhackable super computer called MORPHEUS, which integrates cybersecurity solutions into hardware. Unlike current defensive methods of cybersecurity, MORPHEUS outlines a new way to design hardware that prevents attackers from grabbing the critical information they need to construct a successful attack in the first place. Under MORPHEUS, the location of a weakness in a computer’s system constantly changes, and secondary defenses, such as encryption and domain enforcement, construct additional roadblocks. The vulnerability still exists, but the attackers lack the time and resources to exploit it. As this technology is developed, researchers hope to expand its protection to a wider set of users.

Reactive, experimental environments like WSU’s Cyber Range Hub and novel technologies like U-M’s unhackable super computers are just two of URC researchers’ many exciting projects. Corridor institutions are training the cybersecurity workforce of the future and designing solutions so that we can enjoy the benefits of smart infrastructure with fewer vulnerabilities, keeping our digital data safe and moving Michigan forward in innovative cyberengineering.