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HSU-Project: Software safeguards against hack attacks

Researchers at Hamburg's Helmut Schmidt University and partners develop software to reveal weak spots in production systems

Although small and medium-sized companies rarely make headlines, they form the backbone of Germany’s economy and account for almost 99 per cent of all businesses. Many operate complex, automated production lines and other manufacturing facilities. However, increased digital connectivity and networking is also driving up threats from cybercrime. Hackers are increasingly penetrating even well protected company networks to sift through confidential material and to disrupt production.

M&M software and Consecur

Thus, many experts have identified a gap in cyber security especially in automated production facilities. To seal this gap, scientists and developers from the academic community and specialized companies collaborated to develop a new protective software called Integrated software-based security analysis of automated facilities” (INSA). It was devised by scientists at the Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg, M&M Software GmbH, PHOENIX CONTACT Electronics GmbH, Consecur GmbH, Hanover University and Lower Saxony’s Ministry of Interior and Sport.

Rigorous security check

Funding came from the Federal Ministry for Economy and Energy and the software allows small and medium-sized companies to subject their networks to a rigorous security check. Mostly, these companies lack well-equipped IT departments to look after cyber security all the time. “There is a substantial lack of expertise and capabilities”, says Matthias Glawe, a project scientist at the HSU’s Institute for Automation Technology who helped develop INSA that does automated security checks. “The main advantage lies in the fact that many tasks in an IT security analysis still have to be carried out manually, but can now be performed computer-based and automated by the software”, explains Professor Dr. Ing. Alexander Fay, who heads the project.

Analysis of dangerous sources

INSA has a database of IT security knowledge – various threats and attack scenarios, the operating systems of automated production lines and the protective measures to be taken in each situation. The system uses this knowledge to analyse system data provided by the user who simply has to feed all the necessary data into INSA. Then, it generates an analysis of potential weak spots and required protective measures, but without accessing the facility itself. INSA’s results are based on the received data. And there is a good reason for this. “Actually interfering with an operating production system is always fraught with risks”, explains Matthias Glawe. This may disrupt the production process, lead to material damage or even put people’s lives at risk.

More and better data

For this reason, the scientists evaluated INSA in a controlled scenario. They fed the program with data from a simulated production facility, as data from real installations are confidential and owners refuse to hand them over to an outside party. However, the test was successful. Moreover, the scientists compared INSA’s results with those of a conventional security analysis. The results were identical. INSA provided even more and better data. And the software exposed weak spots unidentified by the researchers during their own analysis. The team at HSU has already concluded its work. Now, it’s up to the companies involved to farther the development of INSA and launch the software on the market.

Growing need

Matthias Glawe believes the demand for automated security applications will grow. However, the risk of cyber attacks on individual firms continues to grow due amid increased interoperability and Industry 4.0’s digital networks.

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