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UT Dallas joins national effort to respond to cyber attacks on public infrastructure

This is photo illustration of green computer code overlay on the city of Dallas emblem on a structure.
Yfat Yossifor
/
KERA
Early last month, the city of Dallas was hit with a ransomware attack by the hacker group Royal, which impacted a number of its websites. This is photo illustration of computer code over the city of Dallas emblem.

UT Dallas last week announced it’s joining a nationwide collaboration to research how to make network-connected infrastructure — including self-driving cars, drones and Wi-Fi-connected trains — more resilient to cyber attacks.

The Richardson-based university joins eight others selected for the National Center for Transportation Cybersecurity and Resiliency, or TraCR, led by Clemson University in South Carolina.

Bhavani Thuraisingham, founder and senior strategist for UTD's Cybersecurity Research and Education Institute, will serve as a principal researcher and one of the center's associate directors. She helped create TraCR along with with professor Mashrur Chowdhury at Clemson.

She said advances in tech leave transportation open to hackers.

"Communications could be disrupted, there could be denial of service attack, there could be jamming," she said. "I'm talking about some of the traditional attacks applied to this new new application.”

TraCR will receive $20 million over five years from the Department of Transportation, along with undisclosed support from UTD. The center's formation comes at a time when cybersecurity is becoming a priority for local governments as cyberattacks happen more frequently.

The recent ransomware attack on the city of Dallas that disrupted services including first responder dispatch systems, courts and libraries shows the urgency of adapting to more sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The city approved funding for upgraded cyber-security software since the attack.

"I think every local government should have like a well designed, well developed ransomware cyber attack mitigation strategy," said UTD professor Murat Kantarcioglu. "I think we really need to make sure that any single attack on one part of an infrastructure won't cause widespread failures."

He said the collaboration will look at ways to respond to attacks in the worst-case scenarios, such as an ice storm like the one that hit the region in 2021.

“Let's say there is some snow storm in [the] Dallas area and some cyber attack happened at that time," said Kantarcioglu. "Cybersecurity for critical infrastructure should be taught in such a way that even under these bad scenarios, we should be resilient.”

Artificial intelligence in smart vehicles is another big concern for cybersecurity. As more vehicles such as self-driving cars, trains and buses become connected to Wi-Fi, they become more susceptible to cyberattacks.

"The attackers are very smart people, right, and they have all the time in the world to, you know, plan collaboratively their attacks," she said. "So keeping up with them is our biggest challenge."

Thuraisingham said her hope is the program will create more research opportunities for students. She also said the center could organize a class on transportation cybersecurity in the coming years.

Got a tip? Email Pablo Arauz Peña at parauzpena@kera.org

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Pablo Arauz Peña is the breaking news reporter for KERA News.