$20M partnership with UI, Homeland Security

URBANA, Ill. - URBANA -- The University of Illinois is partnering with the Department of Homeland Security on a $20 million program. It's called the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI).

Researchers want to keep big infrastructure safe from attacks. Those issues can be natural -- like a tornado, or not -- like a cyber attack. However it happens, researchers want to make sure things keep going.

Whether you notice it or not, resiliency is what keeps your power on, your passwords protected and a lot of your life running smoothly.

"All the critical infrastructure depend on computers and communication and we need to make that resilient and make them protected against attacks on them though the cyber component," said David Nicol, who is the CIRI principal investigator.

CIRI is based out of 16 universities that are all working toward keeping the country safe from whatever or whoever tries to do damage.

"We're really looking forward and excited to see what the university can do, what partners can bring in from industry, from academia," said Matthew Coats, who is a program manager with the Department of Homeland Security. "We're really relying on the academic community to give us some ideas we haven't thought about."

That creativity will be at work at the Cyber-Physical Systems lab.

"We see threats coming in from natural hazards that may impact physical infrastructure," said Coats. "We're seeing increased attacks on cyber space that can disrupt the ability for businesses to conduct commerce."

Researchers will look into issues like cyber insurance, data breaches or network hackers.

"Part of resiliency has to to with delivering some minimal but essential level of service, even through the event," said Nicol. "So you can imagine having some power during a big storm, not all the power. Just the crucial power and then being able to come back quickly. All of those components have to come back with resiliency, so obviously it's really important for critical infrastructures to have this."

Another part of the process will be getting other companies onboard to buy into the idea and invest in security.

"We need to understand how to do the mathematics and analysis that says, 'look, if you make these investments then these are the benefits to your bottom line,'" said Nicol.

Most of the infrastructure in the U.S. is owned by private entities, not the government. So researchers say they're looking forward to finding out what they can to help protect it.

CIRI researchers have four main goals: find vulnerabilities in the systems, develop and test out tools to make security stronger, recommend policy options and look for ways to get other businesses involved. CIRI is already working with companies like Honeywell and Siemens.

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