ORNL researchers encoded grid hardware operating data into a color band hidden inside photographs, video, or artwork, as shown in this photo. The visual can then be transmitted to a utility’s control center for decoding. (Image: ORNL/U.S. Dept. of Energy)

The eye can’t steal what the eye can’t see. That’s the thinking of Peter Fuhr, head of the Grid Communications and Security group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Fuhr has invented a new way to hide sensitive electric grid information from cyberattack: a constantly changing color palette.

With an interest piqued by synesthesia — a lifelong condition that causes some people to experience one sense via another, such as perceiving sounds as colors — Fuhr applied the concept to encrypting the language of grid management software into colors.

The method has already drawn attention from private companies interested in licensing, and was tested in the field for six months using a secure link between ORNL and the public utility EPB of Chattanooga.

“Basically, we’re going through the Technology Readiness Levels, so when we got to a seven, we said ‘Let’s go now install it at these two different utilities and see if it works, and it does.’ We’ve had people come in trying to crack it, and good luck,” Fuhr said in an exclusive Tech Briefs interview, the entirety of which can be read below. “Then we applied for an R&D100 last month, and patents are filed — all that stuff. It’s ready for licensing.”

Fuhr noted that, to crack the color code, an attacker would have to locate the color bar, know the equipment’s protocol language and the sensor’s IP address, and rapidly guess the right color or letter combination at the correct point in the Fibonacci sequence.

“It’s not traveling the IT or operating network, which makes it even harder for bad actors to find,” Fuhr said. “And it’s on the video so briefly, it’s just subliminal.”

Here is the Tech Briefs interview with Fuhr, edited for length and clarity.

Tech Briefs: What were some of the biggest technical challenges you faced throughout your work on this specific project?

Fuhr: It’s operating cameras and systems that are on separate, virtual local area networks, separate dealings, and to work with the utilities to say, ‘This is what we want to do on two VLANs on one particular communication pipe. It was just jumping through their levels of cybersecurity to say, ‘OK, Peter, what do you think of this and this?’ That was the most difficult impediment to this.

Implementing stuff where we could actually do the synesthesia, that’s the color change, and then it was fun doing steganography, layering the information on top of other pictures, that was actually the fun part. It was really fun because I like pointillism as an art style, and that’s what we were using. The hardest part was the VLANs, though.

Tech Briefs: Can you explain in simple terms how the technology works?

Fuhr: So here’s the deal, we weren’t after just utility stuff, by any means, it’s much more for automation.

And looking at machine-to-machine communications that’s happening in automation systems — food, pharma, offshore rigs, wherever we have an automation system; there’s information being transmitted back and forth between the machines that are doing measurements, are doing controls.

With a lot of stuff going toward Internet protocol for the last 10 years, all of a sudden this becomes a possibility of bad guys getting in there.

So, what’s been going on for a long time, it’s point-counterpoint — ‘My encryption is good.’ ‘No, I can crack it.’ ‘Mine’s better.’ ‘OK, I can crack it.’ It’s give and take on the same things. And our basic idea was, let’s change this paradigm for real. So, we said, ‘Let's do something radically different’ and change just bits being sent back and forth representing, in many cases, flat-out alphanumeric-like, easy-to-crack, almost clear text — or maybe simple encryption.

Now, let’s do that and then change it into something different — and those are the colors. And then you have steganography, which is excellent at hiding things inside things, and then put that over on a VLAN that’s separate from the standard communication traffic path that is used for machine-to-machine.

You put all those three together and it’s really difficult to find it, figure out the mathematics, and be able to decipher — it’s a moving target. Good luck with that.

One thing I’m pretty pleased about is we submitted the invention disclosures here at the lab, and then worked on this, funded out of the Department of Energy. We did all this stuff, got it to a specific place where … we were doing all this testing to see if this all works out, and then we’re lucky enough to have a high-speed, 10-gigabit-per-second connection with the utility 100 miles away. So, we could set stuff up here and have it behave as if we’re in the utility network itself, down in Chattanooga — and it works. Then we transported stuff and did in-field testing.

Tech Briefs: How soon can we see this technology implemented?

Fuhr: There’s been large automation companies that have expressed interest in this. Then we have a couple small companies, who we’ve dealt with before, that are interested in a small company licensing thing.

This stuff is working right now. It’s in place, being used for transport back and forth from four different EPB substations — that’s the Chattanooga area — and we’re running it side-by-side with the traditional means.

In the control center, it shows up on their big board screens as nice live camera images from the substation. But the information we’re transmitting is embedded inside that live thing. That’s pretty wild.

The first time we turned it on at EPB, on the control side at the control center, we’re using static images because we can. It’s kind of fun to see a dynamic image. So, we have streaming at 10 frames a second, but we started showing all of these classic masterpieces that are showing up on a screen, and the operators in the controller say, ‘Hey, that’s a Rembrandt,’ ‘There’s Monet.’ ‘What are we doing here?’

Tech Briefs: What are your next steps? Do you have any further research planned?

Fuhr: There are all sorts of other things we could do. For example, we rotate the color scheme, which is so easy to think in terms of alphanumerics, using the Fibonacci number sequence to tell us where we should be inside this color bomb. We have an anchor color, and then there’s other things around it, and that is the entire world of other activities to be investigated.

But with our funding, we hit what we wanted. So now we’re just thinking, ‘OK, what can we do next?’

Tech Briefs: Do you have any advice for engineers aiming to bring their ideas to fruition?

Fuhr: [Long pause] Notice the pause [laughs]. What have you set up as your milestones in your real goal? If your goal is laboratory-based demonstration, a proof of concept or proof of principle, then just proceed along with that.

If you're thinking that this is engineering, not science, and what I’d like to do is actually have an implementation, then have that in mind right from the start — that your goal is a regular and real demonstration at an operating facility, at a utility, and line up that liaison, that particular relationship right in parallel with the R&D development effort. So then when it comes time, you already know where you’re going to try to demonstrate it and then see what’s up.

Get the word out. Of course, articles and journals, that’s broadcast to the broader public — here’s what’s available at this moment on this particular topic.

I’m also on the faculty at the University of Tennessee Electrical Engineering; I have two senior projects, five students each, electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, and they’ve done their respective projects. Each one of those teams was here at the lab independently two weeks ago, and I had them meeting with myself and many of our colleagues, my little core group of teams, and we were basically telling these seniors or about-to-graduate seniors, ‘OK, if you’re looking to do advanced development research stuff, what are you really trying to achieve?’ Some get it, some don’t.

Tech Briefs: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Fuhr: We have a scheme where the information is linear in color. Well, actually, we have other ways to depict or separate. Here’s an example, instead of having it be in the line, we have it in spirals. We have it in different geometric patterns. In fact, we have it just blown apart and sitting at specific pixels inside the image it’s embedded into ‘try to put that together, bad guys.’

So, there’s lots of variations we can work on, but the next thing is the demonstration because this is not just for electric utilities ... Right now, we’re in discussions with not just electric utilities but a wastewater facility, food and pharma over in North Carolina, and some other factories that show that this could be used for the cybersecurity of your particular installation too.

It’s not just electric utilities; It’s machine-to-machine communications in an automated setting. So, we’re going to demonstrate it elsewhere — not just geographical but in different types of automation systems.