SEI Initiative Lead Profile: Sam Litchfield
Dec 13, 2023 — Atlanta, GA
Samuel Litchfield, research engineer at the Cybersecurity, Information Protection, and Hardware Evaluation Research (CIPHER) lab of the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), leads the Cybersecurity of Critical Infrastructure Research Initiative at the Strategic Energy Institute. Litchfield serves as the associate director of research initiatives at the Institute for Cybersecurity and Resilient Infrastructure Studies (ICARIS), a joint research collaboration between Georgia Tech and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory whose mission is to deliver the technologies, test beds, and talent necessary to secure the nation’s critical infrastructure.
Litchfield received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgia Tech in computer engineering. Focused on cybersecurity since 2012, he has worked in cyber-physical system security, network protocol reverse engineering, and large-scale systems vulnerability assessments. Below is a brief Q&A with Litchfield where he discusses his research focus areas and how it influences the cybersecurity initiatives at Georgia Tech.
- What is your field of expertise and at what point in your life did you first become interested in this area?
My field of expertise is cybersecurity of critical infrastructure and embedded systems. I started getting into it first in my undergraduate coursework when I learned about overlaps between control theory, computer architecture, and networking. These overlaps create critical infrastructure.
- What questions or challenges sparked your current energy research? What are the big issues facing your research area right now?
A lot of my day-to-day at work is focused on national security. That comes from both being at GTRI and generally looking at cybersecurity questions.
When you start applying cybersecurity to critical infrastructure, you very quickly run into national security questions like how to keep the lights on and how to keep water flowing and keep people living their lives — basically how to prevent devices or pieces from getting compromised and how to keep these systems moving/working despite people trying to break them. How do we keep the overall infrastructure working in the face of threats even if some elements are compromised? What modifications do we need to make to these sometimes decades-old systems, and what new security primitives can we invent to minimize those modifications? An example is a water system supplying water to your municipality — it is dependent on unobstructed electricity to keep its pumps moving — figuring out how to model those cross-system dependencies is an active area of my research topics as well.
- What interests you the most leading the research initiative on cybersecurity of critical infrastructure? Why is your initiative important to the development of Georgia Tech’s energy research strategy?
In addition to the above questions and figuring out how we approach this sort of research topics, one thing I always find super interesting is coming to a new domain, energy in this case, and figuring out how to use existing domain-specific tools to augment system security, or how those tools might find application in cybersecurity. Aiding PI to PI interactions to get real impacts on systems as a whole and convening researchers whose topic areas don’t traditionally overlap together and identifying projects that can come out of that interaction keeps me going.
Georgia Tech is already a leader in power engineering and cybersecurity separately. Bringing those two large pieces of campus together is going to be truly pivotal for Georgia Tech as an institution. There are other domains with leaders in those fields that we can hopefully bring more to the forefront as we combine them with security.
- What are the broader global and social benefits of the research you and your team conduct on the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure?
There are two basic benefits — one from the United States national security perspective — to keep the infrastructure secure and raise the bar on the effort and cost it takes to compromise systems or use them as a lever in international conflicts. The next one is increasing the security of systems by increasing their resilience for run of the mill things like storms, wildfires, and large climate events. This will become more relevant as climate change increases severe weather events. Another global benefit I could think of is removing energy security from the field of national security levers — see Germany’s natural gas dependence during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- What are your plans for engaging a wider Georgia Tech faculty pool with the broader energy community?
Cybersecurity touches on multiple domains and increasing faculty engagement by getting domain experts to talk to security experts is important. Internally, I’m hoping to build an infrastructure security community across schools that’s invested in forming collaborations between areas and subjects that might not traditionally overlap. Externally, I am planning to build a portfolio of events that engages and brings together community members around Georgia, from manufacturers to utility asset owners to external policymakers and regulators.
- What are your hobbies?
Physically, when I'm not sitting at a desk, I like to go climbing in gyms or hike through the Appalachians when it’s not July in Georgia . Outside of that, I do a lot of recreational programming at home, and I play some tabletop games with friends.
- Who has influenced you the most?
My graduate advisor Raheem Beyah set a good example of how to be passionate about my research, both in terms of technical expertise on how to formulate research questions in a tangible and approachable way and engaging with the people doing the research.
Another is one of my current bosses, Anita Pavadore, in terms of raising the bar on the quality of what I do, from interacting with others to executing research.