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6/22/11 - Collaboration between Mississippi State, Australian institution advances

An informal conversation about SCADA — the computer systems that control everything from power generation plants to nuclear centrifuges — is bringing an Australian computer scientist to Mississippi State this week.

Les Smith of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane is spending a few days in Starkville at the invitation of Ray Vaughn, associate vice president for research at the Mississippi land-grant institution. It was a conversation between them at a cyber security conference several years ago that set the stage both for the visit and a burgeoning collaboration between their respective universities.

SCADA is an acronym for supervisory control and data acquisition. The ubiquitous devices manage much of the world's critical infrastructure.

A member of Queensland's science and technology faculty, Smith and a colleague met with Vaughn and MSU associate professor Dave Dampier during the professional gathering. The four discussed the SCADA security laboratory, part of MSU's Critical Infrastructure Protection Center, and how both schools could benefit from a collaborative partnership.

"There are many similarities between Queensland and Mississippi State," Smith observed. "We can learn a lot from each other.

"There is potential to grow this collaboration; in science, in engineering, across all platforms," he added.

SCADA systems, which monitor and control the power grid in the United States, were the target of Iranian nuclear facilities last year by the Stuxnet computer worm.

While SCADA is critical for the 21st century world to work, computer scientists warn of a significant shortcoming. Because they are not designed with security in mind, its systems offer tempting targets for rogue hackers and foreign military and intelligence agencies, Smith explained.

Smith and Vaughn said that by joining together, researchers at the two universities could seek solutions to counter the threats — and possibly much more.

Vaughn, who has traveled to Queensland twice, called it a "natural collaboration," one that already is helping generate more research funding for MSU.

"We have a National Science Foundation grant under review that will help fund this research," Vaughn said, adding that collaboration also recently helped MSU to receive a research award from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

After returning to Australia at the end of the week, Smith said he will brief senior Queensland administrators and begin making arrangements for them to pay a follow-up visit to the Starkville campus.

JIM LAIRD | University Relations and the Office of Research and Economic Development

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