The federal government is spending nearly $3 million to find out how Canada’s critical infrastructure IT systems are connected – for better or for worse. The research, which is being divided among six multi-partner projects at the universities of British Columbia, York, Ecole Polytechnique, Toronto

and Guelph, is aimed at deciphering all the links connecting Canada’s critical infrastructure — including the banking, telecommunications and energy sectors — in order to better protect them.

It is funded by the public safety and antiterrorism initiative the government announced in December 2001 and will be delivered through Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada and Science and Engineering Research Canada.

“”When we began to ask our partners what the challenges were, they said the biggest one is IT, it’s cyber, it’s the thing that connects all of us,”” said Janet Bax, senior director in Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada’s infrastructure assurance program. “”It’s the thing that has expanded horizons but also it has increased vulnerability.””

SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems, for example, were designed for the management of physical infrastructure such as dams and gates. “”Never was security a factor,”” said Bax. “”What we know now is it’s not as much about actually protecting physical pieces of infrastructure, it’s much more important to think about interdependencies.””

Although the banking sector can take care of the problems within its own system — as it did when a computer software problem created havoc for days at the Royal Bank last summer — it is still dependent on electricity and telecommunications infrastructure, she noted.

“”Each infrastructure has become very complex and sophisticated and the interconnections and interdependencies are the things we have to worry about most.””

Jose Marti, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s electrical and computing engineering department, has been awarded just over $1 million to study decision-making for critical linkages in infrastructure networks.

“”Most planning is done internally on how to bring structures back up,”” said Marti. “”What they don’t do that well is to co-ordinate their actions in the case all three things (energy, telecommunications and banking) have to be fixed.””

The goal for Marti’s group is to come up with a system to alert organizations in the three critical infrastructure sectors to potential problems in each other’s systems. It’s not clear yet what that system will look like, and where it will reside, or whether there will be some central agency overseeing it. But, he said, “”There has to be better visualization techniques on the part of system operators so they can more clearly and quickly understand the severity of the event that is developing and the extent of that event. Right now the way information is presented to operators of control systems is in a flat text-based manner. In the power system grid operators get messages, such as ‘This is failing here, there’s a fault occurring there,’ but it’s very difficult for them to get a global picture from the isolated events.””

Vincent Tao, an associate professor of geomatics engineering at York University in Toronto, has received $586,500 to model interdependencies for emergency management using geographic decision support systems.

“”What we are looking at is geospatial-based cascading effects,”” said Tao. His team is building a mapping system using GIS to look at the cascading effects of three sectors — energy, water and transportation — in the Greater Toronto area.

The team will be conducting vulnerability assessments of the GTA’s water, energy and transportation sectors in the first phase. In the second phase it will be designing models of the cascading effects of disasters on all three sectors using artificial intelligence. The third phase is looking at network-based decision supports. “”We do constant monitoring and if there is any evidence of potential disaster those parameters would trigger the knowledge base, so it will start to do the calculations based on the artificial intelligence engine to see whether there is some other potential effect to other sectors,”” said Tao.

His research team is also working with the City of Toronto as well as Emergency Measures Ontario to make sure the research is usable in a real-world context.

Although PSEPC knew it needed to have a better idea of the cascading impact of critical infrastructure failures, it was the blackout of August 2003 that spurred it to issue a request for proposals from researchers, said Bax.

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