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CSE Professor Attila A. Yavuz and his lab are taking part in a Large-Scale Post-Quantum Cryptography Research Project for Smart-Grids


CSE Associate Professor Attila Yavuz and his lab, Applied Cryptography Research Laboratory (ACRL), will be participating in a large-scale research project funded by the Department of Energy: "Zero-Trust Authentication: Multifactor, Adaptive, and Continuous Authentication with Post-Quantum Cryptography." This large-scale research project aims to defend smart-grid systems against powerful state-level attackers, including those equipped with advanced quantum computing capabilities. Professor Yavuz’s research group is part of a nation-wide coalition that was recently awarded $4.5 million, and his lab’s portion of the funds was $650,000. The coalition includes four other universities, including Texas A&M University-Kingsville, one national lab, one research laboratory, and three utilities.

“As a cyber-security expert with a great passion for cryptography, this project allows me to harness my skills to protect our critical energy infrastructure from hackers, and it is an invaluable motivation for me to participate in this project,” said Professor Yavuz. At the heart of any modern computer system lies the Energy-Delivery Systems (EDS), since they form the backbone of the powerhouse that feeds our giant computing nexus, be it a supercluster running battle simulations or a surgical robot in the middle of a surgery. However, these EDS rely on public key infrastructures, which are currently based on conventional cryptographic methods. Emerging quantum computers can break these conventional public key-based (PKC) techniques (e.g., RSA, ECDSA) much faster than classic computers. 

“Imagine an attacker modifying the command ‘decrease power’ to ‘sharp increase power’ during the transmission of the command. Such a false command injection can overload the grid, creating severe damage to the energy infrastructure,” said Professor Yavuz. Preventing such a catastrophe requires cryptographic algorithms that must be secure against quantum-powerful adversaries. One of the most notable outcomes of these efforts is the recent NIST-PQC standards, which are considered a future replacement for the current conventional PKC. However, NIST-PQC standards are significantly costlier than their conventional counterparts since they require more computation and transmission, thereby putting a heavier load on the underlying application, such as EDS.

Unfortunately, current techniques do not meet stringent delay requirements and are also not suitable for low-end devices in EDS systems (e.g., smart meters). Due to the severity of this threat combined with the narrow acceptable parameters, governments and industrial entities have been making billion-dollar investments in Post-Quantum Cryptography (PQC). Professor Yavuz’s research group will devise novel post-quantum algorithms for secure authentication and integrity techniques that are fast and lightweight enough to meet the speed needs of EDS and low-end smart-grid devices. 

“Our approach is iterative cryptographic algorithm development followed by field tests,” said Professor Yavuz. “We will first design hash-based and lattice-based techniques, supported with secure hardware and blockchains, to craft techniques that meet the performance needs of EDS.” He described how they would afterward construct mathematical proofs and prototype implementations in collaboration with the other research teams and national labs of this project. They’ll then iterate based on their feedback until the results are within the highly stringent parameters. “Finally, with utilities and research labs, we will test the effectiveness of our methods on actual EDS systems in the field.” He finished.

“It was a great experience to be part of this proposal, wherein I found an opportunity to develop novel ideas with a diverse team of collaborators comprised of excellent researchers.” Said Professor Yavuz.

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