Brussels, 01 Mar 2006
The Commission has launched a new seven million euro Integrated Project which aims to shed light on the increasingly complex interconnections between key information-based infrastructures, such as energy supply and telecommunications networks, in order to better protect them from failure.
The nature of infrastructure networks has changed fundamentally in recent years, following increased deregulation, internationalisation and the widespread introduction of information and communication technologies (ICT). This has led to infrastructures that are more complex, geographically distributed and increasingly interconnected, and therefore more vulnerable.
'A problem with a telecommunications network in one country can have the effect of shutting off the gas supply in a city thousands of kilometres away,' Uwe Beyer, head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Autonomous Intelligent Systems, told CORDIS News. Mr Beyer is the coordinator of the three-year 'Integrated risk reduction on information-based infrastructure systems (IRRIIS) project, funded under the IST priority of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
Such interconnections exist because nowadays managers of individual infrastructure networks, or even sub-networks, can control them with the click of a mouse button. This means that, for example, power supply networks are reliant on telecommunications networks for their smooth running and, crucially, vice versa. 'If the power goes down, then communications networks go down, leading to a cascading effect that marches through systems. You are left in a chicken and egg situation where you can't restart the power without restarting the communications network, but you can't restart the communications network without the power,' explained Mr Beyer.
While individual infrastructures generally have very thorough security procedures in place to protect them from the three main threats - technical failures, 'asymmetric' threats such as sabotage or terrorism, and overload through, for example, business usage - security measures rarely take account of the complex interrelations between systems, not least because nobody really fully understands them.
A key challenge for the partners in the IRRIIS Integrated Project, therefore, is to improve their understanding of the complexity of modern interconnected systems, identify possible problems and propose solutions. To achieve this, they will construct and use an artificial simulation environment, SYNTEX. Having characterised the threats, they will then develop 'middleware improved technologies (MITs) - software components that facilitate IT-based communication between the different infrastructures and service providers. These MITs will increase the stability of services during critical situations and support recovery actions in the case of system failure, thus substantially enhancing the security of critical infrastructures.
Getting the information they need to carry out the work will present something of a challenge in itself, believes Mr Beyer. 'It can sometimes be hard to get real life data on infrastructures, as these are closely related to companies' business plans, and they might not always be fully aware of the scale of the danger. Although there may only be a small chance of it happening, we have to try and communicate to them the worst-case scenario,' he said.
As well as developing practical tools for addressing these threats, Mr Beyer believes that the IRRIIS project could contribute to the development of new security regulations. 'In each country there are national and local regulations governing the security of infrastructures, but to my knowledge there are no regulations on the interconnections at EU level,' he revealed. The nature of the problem is so complex that it is unlikely that a three-year initiative will lead directly to recommendations for EU legislation, but Mr Beyer hopes that IRRIIS will develop a knowledge base that may form the core of future rules.
And just as new business models and technologies lead to infrastructures reaching across national borders within Europe, the project must also take into account the global dimension. This will be achieved with the organisation of international conferences and through cooperation with partners in North America, Australia and Asia. Finally, the competitive potential of IRRIIS will also be enhanced through the widespread demonstration of the results, in an effort to encourage application of the project's novel technologies.