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Vulnerabilities / Threats

Smart Grids Offer Cyber Attack Opportunities

Hackers are likely to exploit the 440 million potential targets researchers predict smart grids will offer by 2015.




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Is your home electricity meter the next device you have to worry about getting hacked? Researchers at last week's IEEE SmartGridComm2010 conference in Gaithersburg, Md., warned that as utilities transition to greater use of smart grids, their increased two-way communication would leave consumers and suppliers open to more forms of cyber attack. In fact, by 2015, they estimated, the smart grid will offer up to 440 million potential points to be hacked.

Why mess with someone's home heating bill? One significant worry is that intercepting and manipulating smart grid data could provide attackers with the means to benefit financially, said Le Xie, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Texas A&M University, according to published reports.

For example, utilities typically plan their energy requirements one day in advance. An attacker who manipulated apparent energy demands, forcing utilities to turn to emergency -- and more expensive -- energy resources could likewise place safe bets in the energy market. "The virtual trader basically gambles against the price difference between the day-ahead market and the real-time market," said Xie.

Beyond financial remuneration, other leading attack scenarios include causing chaos, studying consumers' usage patterns to determine when they're on vacation and then burgling their house, or taking out sensitive facilities.

Another difficulty is that like SCADA systems, today's smart grid systems may have a lifespan of 10 or 20 years. During that time, their built-in security, if any, will become widely known and disseminated. In other words, today's new smart grid meter could be 2030's cyber-catastrophe, or at least give rise to some new variation on Stuxnet.

Accordingly, numerous moves are afoot to help nail the security of smart grids in their infancy. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, notably, has been developing a framework for creating interoperable as well as secure smart grids and related systems.

Last month, the Department of Energy also announced awards of more than $30 million to utility cybersecurity projects. "These awards help us make a significant leap forward to strengthen the security and reliability of the nation's electric grid, in a climate of increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks," said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement.

"The development of technologies that can provide defense-in-depth cyber-security solutions, and increased insight from private-public collaborations, will allow us to better protect the nation's energy delivery systems that keep our lights on and the power flowing," he said.

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