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Podhradsky contributes to ERVA engineering report

March 3, 2023

The Engineering Research Visioning Alliance (ERVA), a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded initiative, released a report in February outlining engineering research priorities to create R&D and technology solutions to make infrastructure “unhackable.”

Dakota State University’s Vice President for Research & Economic Development, Dr. Ashley Podhradsky, served on this task force, taking part in a visioning event last summer.

The report’s aim is to inspire researchers and sponsors in the public, private, and non-profit sectors and lay the foundations for the high-impact, multidisciplinary engineering research necessary to mitigate the economic and security threats from cybercrime and secure both physical and virtual spaces.

“It was an honor to serve with leaders from academia, government, and industry to discuss this imperative issue,” said Podhradsky. “I was pleased to enrich the conversation using examples of Dakota State’s unique history and perspective with insights from the research projects taking place at DSU’s Madison Cyber Labs,” she stated.

The report challenges the engineering research and development community to develop proactive approaches rather than reactive measures that simply counteract identified threats. The aim is to fortify infrastructure security against a wide variety of adversarial threats while anticipating future technology developments and their security needs, including human-technology interfaces and quantum computing. The executive summary and full report can be found on ERVA’s website.

As technological advances provide more complex and connected tools and systems, such as real-time automation and AI-driven autonomous agents, adversaries will be able to leverage vulnerable access points, increasing the potential for damage.

“Critical infrastructures of tomorrow will face an enormous array of adversarial threats,” said David Ott, senior researcher at VMware and co-chair of the ERVA Thematic Task Force that framed the visioning event. “Our goal is to identify research and development avenues in infrastructure security that will raise the bar on robustness and resilience and will redirect security from reactive to anticipatory. New approaches in autonomous security and trustworthy architectures could be game-changing.”

To prevent and mitigate potentially catastrophic cyberattacks on infrastructure systems, participants considered gaps in today's security technologies and bold new ideas to steer future research toward innovation in cyber-physical systems. Visioning event participants asked what tomorrow's "unhackable infrastructure" could look like with big ideas—not just incremental advances—in engineering R&D.

This challenge was presented to Podhradsky and others at a visioning event held Aug. 10-11, 2022, in the offices of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Industrial Liaison Program in Cambridge, Mass. Thirty-five researchers and technical experts from academia, government, and industry identified engineering research priorities in five key areas:

  1. Human-technology interface considerations: Research should incorporate the human element and even recast the technical language from building secure “cyber-physical systems” to “cyber-physical-human systems.” The human interface is critical for computer system security modeling and design.
  2. Measuring and verifying security: Advances in measurement tools and metrics for tomorrow's infrastructure are sorely needed to support security risk evaluation, verification, automation, and more.
  3. Future approaches to autonomous security: To address the complexity and scale of tomorrow’s infrastructure, research is needed for approaches in self-configuring, self-guiding, and self-managing.
  4. New approaches to resilience in interdependent infrastructures: As infrastructure becomes more complex and interconnected, one vulnerable access point can potentially open a door for hackers to do great harm. Design approaches are needed to maintain safety, security, and resilience at the systems level, even when a modular component is attacked.
  5. Architecting trustworthy systems: Design specifications, decentralized control, confidential computing, and new infrastructure domains are priorities for research and development when considering how correctness of operation can be verified more robustly and built into system architectures and infrastructure.

“Anticipation and preparation for security threats to physical and virtual spaces have emerged as a critical national and international priority,” said Saurabh Amin, MIT associate professor and member of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), who served as the event’s Thematic Task Force co-chair. “The research priorities described in this report provide the necessary steps we must take to mitigate the economic and security threats inherent in cybercrime and secure both physical and virtual spaces.”

Engineering R&D Solutions for Unhackable Infrastructure is the third report released by ERVA, a five-year initiative funded by the NSF to help identify future engineering research directions. To read the report, visit ERVA’s website. View the previous ERVA reports, Leveraging Biology to Power Engineering Impact and The Role of Engineering to Address Climate Change.

ERVA is funded by an award from the National Science Foundation.