Authentication of cyber-physical systems under learning-based attacks

The problem of attacking and authenticating cyber-physical systems is considered. This paper concentrates on the case of a scalar, discrete-time, time-invariant, linear plant under an attack which can override the sensor and the controller signals. Prior works assumed the system was known to all parties and developed watermark-based methods. In contrast, in this paper the attacker needs to learn the open-loop gain in order to carry out a successful attack. A class of two-phase attacks are considered: during an exploration phase, the attacker passively eavesdrops and learns the plant dynamics, followed by an exploitation phase, during which the attacker hijacks the input to the plant and replaces the input to the controller with a carefully crafted fictitious sensor reading with the aim of destabilizing the plant without being detected by the controller. For an authentication test that examines the variance over a time window, tools from information theory and statistics are utilized to derive bounds on the detection and deception probabilities with and without a watermark signal, when the attacker uses an arbitrary learning algorithm to estimate the open-loop gain of the plant.


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I Introduction

The recent technological advances in wireless communications and computation, and their integration into networked control and cyber-physical systems (CPS) [1], open the door to a myriad of new and exciting opportunities in transportation, health care, agriculture, energy, and many others.

However, the distributed nature of CPS is often a source of vulnerability [2, 3, 4]. Security breaches in CPS can have catastrophic consequences ranging from hampering the economy by obtaining financial gain, through hijacking autonomous vehicles and drones, and all the way to terrorism by manipulating life-critical infrastructures [5, 6, 7, 8]. Real-world instances of security breaches in CPS that were discovered and made available to the public include the revenge sewage attack in Maroochy Shire, Australia [9], the Ukraine power attack [10], the German steel mill cyber-attack [11] and the Iranian uranium enrichment facility attack via the Stuxnet malware [12, 13, 14, 15, 16]. Consequently, studying and preventing such security breaches via control-theoretic methods has received a great deal of attention in recent years [17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26].

An important and widely used class of attacks on CPS are based on the “man-in-the-middle” (MITM) attack technique (cf. [27]): an attacker takes over the physical plant’s control and sensor signals. The attacker overrides the control signals with malicious inputs in order to push the plant toward an alternative trajectory, often unstable and catastrophic. Consequently, the vast majority of CPS constantly monitor/sense the plant outputs with the objective of detecting a possible attack. The attacker, on the other hand, aims to overwrite the sensor readings in a manner that would be indistinguishable from the legitimate ones.

The simplest instance a MITM attack is the replay attack [28, 29, 30], in which the attacker observes and records the legitimate system behavior across a long period of time and then replays it at the controller’s input; this attack is reminiscent of the notorious attack of video surveillance systems, in which previously recorded surveillance footage is replayed during a heist. A well-known example of this attack is that of the Stuxnet malware, which used an operating system vulnerability to enable a twenty-one seconds long replay attack during which the attacker is believed to have driven the speed of the centrifuges at a uranium enrichment facility toward excessively high and destructive speed levels [31]. The extreme simplicity of the replay attack, which can be implemented with zero knowledge of the system dynamics and sensors specification, has made it a popular and well-studied topic of research [28, 29, 30, 32, 33, 34].

In contrast to the replay attack, a paradigm that follows Shannon’s maxim of Kerckhoffs’s principle: “the enemy knows the system”, was considered by Satchidanandan and Kumar [35] and Ko et al. [36]. This assumes that the attacker has complete knowledge of the dynamics and parameters of the system, which allows the attacker to construct arbitrarily long fictitious sensor readings, that are statistically identical to the actual signals, without being detected.

To counter both replay and “statistical-duplicate” attacks, Mo and Sinopoli [29], and Satchidanandan and Kumar [35], respectively, proposed to superimpose a random watermark on top of the (optimal) control signal that is not known to the attacker. In this way, by testing the correlation of the subsequent measurements with the watermark signal, the controller is able to detect the attack. Thus, by superimposing watermarking at different power levels, improved detection probability of the attack can be traded for an increase in the control cost.

The two interesting models described above suffer from some shortcomings. First, in the case of a replay attack the usage of the watermarking signal is unnecessary: by taking a long enough detection window, the controller is always able to detect such an attack even in the absence of watermarks by simply testing for repetitions. A watermark is only necessary when the detection window of the controller is small compared to the recording (and replay) window of the attacker. Second, in the case of a statistical-duplicate attack, we must assume that the attacker has no access to the signal generated and applied by the controller. Since this type of attack assumes the attacker has full system knowledge, if it also has access to the control signal then it can contstruct a fictitious sensor readings containing any watermark signal inscribed by the controller. Assuming there is no access to the control signal seems a questionable assumption for an attacker who is capable of hijacking the whole system.

The two models constitute two extremes: the replay attack assumes no knowledge of the system parameters —and as a consquence it is relatively easy to detect. The statistical-duplicate attack assumes full knowledge of the system dynamics (2) —and as a consequence it requires a more sophisticated detection procedure, as well as additional assumptions to ensure it can be detected.

In the current work, we explore a model that is in between these two extremes. We assume that the controller has perfect knowledge of the system dynamics,111A reasonable assumption as the controller is tuned in much longer and therefore can learn the system dynamics to a far greater percision. while the attacker knows that the system is linear and time-invariant, but does not know the actual open-loop gain. It follows that the attacker needs to “learn” the plant first, before being capable of generating a fictitious control input. In this setting, we also consider the case when the attacker has full access to the control signals, and we investigate the robustness of different attacks to system parametric uncertainty. To determine whether an attack can be successful or not, we rely on physical limitations of the system’s learning process, similar to an adaptive control setting [37], rather than on cryptographic/watermarking techniques.

Our approach is reminiscent of parametric linear system identification (SysID), but in contrast to classical SysID our attacker is constrained to passive identification. Specifically, we consider two-phase

attacks akin to the exploration and exploitation phases in reinforcement learning/multi-armed bandit problems 

[38, 39]: in the exploration phase the attacker passively listens and learns the system parameter(s); in the exploitation phase the attacker uses the learned parameter(s) of the first phase to try and mimic the statistical behavior of the real plant, in a similar fashion to the statistical-duplicate attack. For the case of two-phase linear attacks, we analyze the achievable performance of a least-squares (LS) estimation-based scheme and a variance detection test, along with lower bound on the attack-detection probability under the variance detection test and any learning algorithm. We provide explicit results for the case where the duration of the exploitation phase tends to infinity. To enhance the security of the system, we also extend the results to the case of a superimposed watermark (or authentication) signal.

An outline of the rest of the paper is as follows. We set up the problem in Sec. II, and state the main results in Sec. III, with their proofs relegated to the appendix of the paper. Simulations are provided in Sec. IV. We conclude the paper and discuss the future research directions in Sec. V.

I-a Notation

We denote by the set of natural numbers. All logarithms, denoted by , are base 2. For two real valued functions and , as means , and as means . We denote by

the realization of the random vector

for . denotes the Euclidean norm.

denotes the distribution of the random variable

with respect to (w.r.t.) probability measure , whereas

denotes its probability density function (PDF) w.r.t. to the Lebesgue measure, if it has one. An event happens almost surely (a.s.) if it occurs with probability one. For real numbers

and , means is much less than

, while for probability distributions

and , means is absolutely continuous w.r.t. . denotes the Radon–Nikodym derivative of w.r.t. . The Kullback–Leibler (KL) divergence between probability distributions and is defined as


where denotes the expectation w.r.t. probability measure . The conditional KL divergence between probability distributions and averaged over is defined as , where are independent and identically distributed (i.i.d.). The mutual information between random variables and is defined as . The conditional mutual information between random variables and given random variable is defined as , where are i.i.d.

Ii Problem Setup

(a) Exploration: During this phase, the attacker eavesdrops and learns the system, without altering the input signal to the controller ().
(b) Exploitation: During this phase, the attacker hijacks the system and intervenes as an MITM in two places: acting as a fake plant for the controller () by impersonating the legitimate sensor and as a malicious controller () for the plant.
Fig. 1: System model during the two attack phases.

We consider the networked control system depicted in Fig. 1, where the plant dynamics are described by a scalar, discrete-time, linear time-invariant (LTI) system


where , , , are real numbers representing the plant state, open-loop gain of the plant, control input, and plant disturbance, respectively, at time . The controller, at time , observes and generates a control signal as a function of . We assume that the initial condition has a known (to all parties) distribution and is independent of the disturbance sequence , which is an i.i.d. process with PDF a known to all parties. We assume that . With a slight loss of generality and for analytical purposes, we assume


Moreover, to simplify the notations, let denote the state-and-control input at time and its trajectory up to time —by


The controller is equipped with a detector that tests for anomalies in the observed history . When the controller detects an attack, it shuts the system down and prevents the attacker from causing further “damage” to the plant. The controller/detector is aware of the plant dynamics (2) and knows exactly the open-loop gain of the plant. On the other hand, the attacker knows the plant dynamics (2) as well as the plant state , and control input (or equivalently, ) at time (see Fig. 1). However, it does not know the open-loop gain of the plant.

In what follows, it will be convenient to treat the open-loop gain of the plant as a random variable (i.e., it is fixed in time), whose PDF is known to the attacker, and whose realization is known to the controller. We assume all random variables to exist on a common probability space with probability measure , and denote the probability measure conditioned on by . Namely, for any measurable event , we define


is further assumed to be independent of and .

We consider the (time-averaged) linear quadratic (LQ) control cost [40]:


where the weights and are non-negative known (to the controller) real numbers that penalize the cost for state deviations and control actuations, respectively.

Ii-a Adaptive Integrity Attack

We define Adaptive Integrity Attacks (AIA) that consist of a passive and an active phases, referred to as exploration and exploitation, respectively.

During the exploration phase, depicted in Fig. 0(a), the attacker eavesdrops and learns the system, without altering the input signal to the controller, i.e., during this phase.

On the other hand, during the exploitation phase, depicted in Fig. 0(b), the attacker intervenes as a MITM in two different parts of the control loop with the aim of pushing the plant toward an alternative trajectory (usually unstable) without being detected by the controller: it hijacks the true measurements and feeds the controller with a fictitious input instead. Furthermore, it issues and overrides a malicious control signal to the actuator instead of the signal that is generated by the controller as depicted in Fig. 0(b).

Remark 1.

Attacks that manipulate the control signal by tampering the integrity of the sensor readings, while trying to remain undetected, are usually referred to as integrity attacks, e.g., [41]. Since in the class of attacks described above, the attacker learns the open-loop gain of the plant in a fashion reminiscent of adaptive control techniques, we referred to attacks in this class as AIA.

Ii-B Two-Phase AIA

While in a general AIA the attacker can switch between the exploration and exploitation phases back and forth or try to combine them together in an online fashion, in this work, we concentrate on a special class of AIA comprising only two disjoint consecutive phases as follows.

Phase 1: Exploration. As is illustrated in Fig. 0(a) for , the attacker observes the plant state and control input, and tries to learn the open-loop gain . We denote by the attacker’s estimate of the open-loop gain .

Phase 2: Exploitation. As is illustrated in Fig. 0(b) from time and onwards, the attacker hijacks the system and feeds a malicious control signal to the plant , and—a fictitious sensor reading to the controller.

Ii-C Linear Two-Phase AIA

A linear two-phase attack is a special case of the two-phase AIA of Sec. II-B, in which the exploitation phase of the attacker takes the following linear form.


where for are i.i.d. with ; is the control signal generated by the controller, which is fed with the fictitious virtual signal by the attacker; and is the estimate of the open-loop gain of the plant at the conclusion of Phase 1.

The controller/detector, being aware of the dynamic (2) and the open-loop gain , attempts to detect possible attacks by testing for statistical deviations from the typical behavior of the system (2). More precisely, under legitimate system operation (the null hypothesis [42, Ch. 14]), the controller observation behaves according to


Note that in case of an attack, during Phase 2 (), (8) can be rewritten as


where (9c) follows from (7). Hence, the estimation error dictates the ease at which an attack can be detected.

While the controller in general can carry out different statistical tests to test the validity of (8) such as the Kolmogorov–Smirnov and Anderson–Darling tests [42, Ch. 14], we consider a specific test in Sec. III-A that requires knowledge of only the second-order statistics.

Ii-D Deception and Detection Probabilities

Define the hijack indicator at time as the first time index at which hijacking occurs:


At every time , the controller uses to construct an estimate of . We denote the following events.

  • , : There was no attack, and no attack was declared by the detector.

  • , : An attacker hijacked the controller observation before time but was caught by the controller/detector. In this case we say that the controller detected the attack. The detection probability at time is defined as

  • , : An attacker hijacked the observed signal by the controller before time , and the controller/detector failed to detect the attack. In this case, we say that the attacker deceived the controller or, equivalently, that the controller misdetected the attack [42, Ch. 3]. The deception probability at time is defined as

  • , : The controller falsely declared an attack. We refer to this event as false alarm. The false alarm probability at time is defined as




The controller wishes to achieve a low false alarm probability, while guaranteeing a low deception probability [42, Ch. 3] and a low control cost (6). In addition, in case of an attacker that knows (or has perfectly learned) the system gain , and replaces of (2) with a virtual signal that is statistically identical and independent of it, the controller has no hope of correctly detecting the attack.

We further define the deception, detection, and false alarm probabilities w.r.t. the probability measure , without conditioning on , and denote them by , , and , respectively. For instance, is defined as


w.r.t. a PDF of .

Iii Statement of the results

We now describe the main results of this work. We start by describing a variance-based attack-detection test in Sec. III-B1. We derive upper and lower bound on the deception probability in Sec. III-B. The proofs of the results in this section are relegated to the appendix of the paper.

Iii-a Attack-Detection Variance Test

A simple and widely used test is the one that seeks anomalies in the variance, i.e., a test that examines the empirical variance of (8) is equal to . In this way, only second-order statistics of need to be known at the controller. The price of this is of course is its inability to detect higher-order anomalies.

Specifically, this test sets a confidence interval of length

around the expected variance, i.e., it checks whether


where is called the test time. That is, as is implied by (9), the attacker manages to deceive the controller () if


Eq. (8) suggests that the false alarm probability of the variance test (16) is


By applying Chebyshev’s inequality (see [42, Prob. 11.27]) and (3), we have


As a result, as , the probability of false alarm goes to zero. Hence, in this limit, we are left with the task of determining the behavior of the deception probability (12). We note that the asymptotic assumption simplifies the presentation of the results. Nonetheless, similar treatment can be done in the non-asymptotic case.

Iii-B Bounds on the Deception Probability
Under the Variance Test

In what follows, we assume that the power of the fictitious sensor reading signal ,


converges a.s. to a deterministic value as tends to infinity for some positive real number , namely,

Remark 2.

Assuming the control policy is memoryless, namely is only dependent on , the process is Markov for . By further assuming that

and using the generalization of the law of large number for Markov processes 

[43], we deduce


Consequently, in this case we have .

We now provide lower and upper bounds on the deception probability (12) of any linear two-phase AIA (7) where of (7) is constructed using any learning algorithm.

Iii-B1 Lower Bound

To provide a lower bound on the deception probability , we consider a specific estimate of at the conclusion of the first phase by the attacker, assuming a controller that uses the variance test (16). To that end, we use least-squares (LS) estimation due to its efficiency and amenability to recursive update over observed incremental data, which makes it the method of choice for many applications of real-time parametric identification of dynamical systems [44, 45, 46, 37, 47, 48]. The LS algorithm approximates the overdetermined system of equations


by minimizing the Euclidean distance


to estimate (or “identify”) the plant, the solution to which is

Remark 3.

Since we assumed for all time has a PDF, the probability that is zero. Consequently, (26) is well-defined.

Using LS estimation (26) achieves the following asymptotic deception probability.

Theorem 1.

Consider any linear two-phase AIA (7) with fictitious-sensor reading power that satisfies (22) and a control policy . Then, the asymptotic deception probability when using the variance test (16) is bounded from below as

Remark 4.

Thm. 1 guarantees for the choice . An important consequence of this is that, for this choice, even without having any prior knowledge of the open-loop gain of the plant, the attacker can still carry a successful attack.

Iii-B2 Upper Bound

We derive an upper bound on the deception probability for the case of a uniformly distributed

over a symmetric interval . We assume the attacker knows the distribution of (including the value of ), whereas the controller knows the true value of (as before). Similar results can be obtained for other interval choices. We further note that this bound remains true for the scenario in which guarantees for the worst-case distribution need to be derived.

Theorem 2.

Let be distributed uniformly over for some , and consider any control policy and any linear two-phase AIA (7) with fictitious-sensor reading power (22) that satisfies . Then, the asymptotic deception probability when using the variance test (16) is bounded from above as


In addition, if

is a Markov chain for all

, then


for any sequence of probability measures , provided for all .

Remark 5.

The bound in (29c) implies that the deception probability decreases with . This is consistent with the observation of Zames [49] (see also [47]) that SysID becomes harder as uncertainty about the open-loop gain of the plant increases; in our case, larger uncertainty interval corresponds to worse estimation of the open-loop gain by the attacker, which leads, in turn, to a decrease in the achievable deception probability by the attacker.

Thm. 2 provides two upper bounds on the deception probability. The first of them (29) clearly shows that increasing the privacy of the open-loop gain —manifested in the mutual information between and the state-and-control trajectory during the exploration phase—reduces the deception probability. The second bound (30) allows freedom in choosing the auxiliary probability measure , making it a rather useful bound. An important instance is that of an i.i.d. Gaussian plant disturbance sequence ; by choosing , for this case, for all , we can rewrite the upper bound (30) in term of as follows.

Corollary 1.

Under the assumptions of Thm. 2, if is a Markov chain for all , and is an i.i.d. Gaussian plant disturbance sequence, the following upper bound on the asymptotic deception probability holds:



Remark 6.

While the upper bound in (29c) is valid for all control policies, the upper bound in (30), and consequently also the one in (31), is only valid for control policies where form a Markov chain for all . To demonstrate this, choose and evaluate the bounds in (29c) and (31). Clearly (32) is finite. On the other hand and hence also the upper bound in (29c), is infinite, since, given and , can be fully determined.

Iii-C Watermarking

To increase the security of the system, at any time , the controller can add an authentication (or watermarking) signal to a unauthenticated control policy :


We refer to such a control policy as the authenticated control policy . We denote the states of the system that would be generated if only the unauthenticated control signal were applied by , and the resulting trajectory—by .

A “good” authentication signal entails little increase in the control cost (6) compared to its unauthenticated version while providing enhanced detection probability (12) and/or false alarm probability.

Remark 7.

In both the replay-attack [29] and the statistical-duplicate [35] models no access to the control signal by the attacker was allowed. Thus, to improve the detection probability of the controller in case of an attack, one could add an authentication/watermarking signal, which facilitated the controller with identify abnormalities by correlating the input watermarking signal with its contribution to the sensor reading. Yet, since in the statistical-duplicate setting full system knowledge at the attacker was assumed, if the attacker has the access to the control signal it could easily simulate the contribution of the any inscribed watermarking signal to the sequence of fictitious sensor readings. In contrast, in the replay-attack setting, no system knowledge is assumed rendering any knowledge of the control signal useless, unless learning the plant dynamics is invoked (and brings it to the realm of our work); the latter however takes away from the appeal of this technique which is owes it to its simplicity. Indeed, in our setup the attacker has full access to the control signal. However, in contrast to the statistical-duplicate setting, it cannot perfectly simulate the effect of the control signal as it lacks knowledge of the open-loop gain. Thus, the watermarking signal here is used for a different purpose—to impede the learning process of the attacker.

At first glance, one may envisage that superimposing any watermarking signal on top of the control policy would necessarily enhance the detectability of an attack since the effective observations of the attacker are in this case noisier. However, it turns out that injecting a strong noise may in fact speed up the learning process as it improves the the power of the signal maginifed by the open-loop gains with respect to the observed noise [50].

The following corollary proposes a class of watermarking signals that provide better guarantees on the deception probability .

Corollary 2.

Under the assumptions of Corollary 1, for any control policy with trajectory and its corresponding authenticated control policy  (33) with trajectory , the following majorization holds:


if for all


where is defined in (32), and .

Iv Simulation

In this section, we compare the empirical performance of the variance-test algorithm with the developed bounds in this work as well as the replay attack.

At every time , the controller tests the empirical variance for abnormalities over a detection window of size , , with a confidence interval around the expected variance (16). When the statistical test used in the simulation, the hijack indicator , and its estimate at the controller become equivalent to the definitions of the variance test in (16), the hijack indicator in (10), and the estimate of the latter of Sec. II-D, respectively.

We use the following parameters for the simulation: , and , the open-loop gain of the plant (2) is , the entries of the plant disturbance sequence are i.i.d. standard Gaussian. The applied control policy is . The length of exploration phase, for both the replay attack and the AIA, is . We use the LS algorithm (26) of Sec. III-B1 to construct .

Fig. 2 demonstrates the weakness of the replay attack once the controller uses a sufficiently large detection window, even in the absence of watermarking.

In contrast, when no attack is cast on the system, the alarm rate becomes the false alarm rate and is also depicted in Fig. 2. Clearly, the false alarm probability is high for small detection windows and decays to zero as the detection window become large, with agreement with (20).

Fig. 2: The alarm rate versus the size of the detection window under a variance test with a confidence interval of . A semi-logarithmic scale for the detection window size is used. The control input is chosen to be for all , , and is an i.i.d. standard Gaussian sequence. The three curves correspond to three different scenarios: no attack is carried—in this case, the alarm rate becomes the false alarm rate; replay attack with a recording length of ; AIA with an exploration phase of length .
Fig. 3: Alarm rate as a function of the watermarking signal power under a variance test with a confidence interval of . The control input is equal to for all , where is an i.i.d. zero-mean Gaussian sequences whose power is shown on the x-axis. is an i.i.d. standard Gaussian sequence. The attack is assumed to be AIA with an exploration phase of length , and the detection window size equals .

In our second simulation, depicted in Fig. 3, we evaluate the detection rate as a function of the power of a watermarking signal. To that end, we fix the detection window to be , which guarantees a negligible false alarm probability, and use Gaussian i.i.d. zero-mean watermarks as in (33) with different power.

V Conclusions

We studied attacks on cyber-physical systems which consist of exploration and exploitation phases, where the attacker first explores the dynamic of the plant, after which it hijacks the system by playing a fictitious sensor reading to the controller/detector while and feedind a detrimental control input to the plant. Future research will address the setting of authentication systems in which both the attacker and the controller do not know the dynamic of the plant. To that end, one needs to generate watermarking signals that simultaneously facilitate the learning of the controller and hinder the learning of the attacker.


This research was partially supported by NSF award CNS-1446891. This work has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 708932. This work was done, in part, while A. Khina was visiting the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing.


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