Smart Grid Researcher Releases Open Source Meter-Hacking Tool

'Termineter' unleashed prior to presentations on smart meter security next week at BSides, Black Hat USA

A smart grid researcher today released a free open-source hacking tool to test the security of smart meters. But this is a different researcher than the one who pulled his talk and public release of a similar tool earlier this year amid concerns by a smart grid vendor.

Spencer McIntyre, a member of SecureState's Research & Innovation Team, says his company basically lucked out and wasn't pressured by vendors worried about the release today of his so-called Termineter tool, which he will demonstrate next week at the BSides conference in Las Vegas. "We got really lucky, I guess. We worked with power and utility vendors," he says. "The [utility] client we worked with has been working with us to release this tool."

InGuardians initially wasn't so lucky. Researcher Don Weber was supposed to release his firm's tool earlier this year at the ShmooCon conference, but had to put the talk and tool on hold after a vendor came forward with concerns. The company ended up providing the tool to smart grid vendors and utilities -- just not publicly, says Jimmy Alderson, chief operating officer of InGuardians.

"We did not feel it was right to make our tool publicly available," Alderson says. "It's modified open source, so you can add to it, but at the same time it's not widely open to an attacker."

Don Weber, a senior security analyst with InGuardians, is scheduled to demonstrate the tool at Black Hat USA in Las Vegas next week. The tool, like Termineter, tests for both vulnerabilities and functionality in smart grid meters via the devices' infrared ports. The so-called OptiGuard is a Python-based tool that demonstrates the way infrared ports on a smart meter can be penetrated, looking for vulnerabilities and executing attacks. InGuardians looks for vulnerabilities in these devices, including weak passwords that could lead to meter fraud and taking control of a meter.

How does OptiGuard differ from SecureState's Termineter? SecureState uses more of a Metasploit Framework user interface, notes Alderson, whereas InGuardians' has its own user interface. Plus Termineter is open source, and OptiGuard is not.

[ Itron, which sells smart meters, data collection, and software solutions to around 8,000 utilities in more than 130 countries and regions worldwide, has made SDL mandatory in all hardware and software development. See SCADA/Smart-Grid Vendor Adopts Microsoft's Secure Software Development Program. ]

Overall, the two tools do similar things: They require that the user physically access the meter, using a serial port connection that interacts with the optical infrared interface. Both are based on Python and aimed at helping security auditors to test the vulnerability of smart meters.

"Our tool is framework-extensible by the community: It's completely open source ... and you can use it for whatever purposes you will to facilitate auditing of smart meters," SecureState's McIntyre says. The idea is to provide utilities with the tools to check the risks and vulnerabilities with the smart meter equipment they provide their customers, according to McIntyre.

Authentication issues such as weak passwords and weak access controls in these devices are top of mind for power company concerns, he says. "Being able to write and read from a meter while being authenticated as an underprivileged user or to not have to authenticate at all," he says. "That could be used for fraud, which is a large concern for power companies."

While SecureState's tool is available to anyone via download, InGuardians has no plans to do the same with its tool. "Our tool is aimed at people inside the industry," including SecureState, Alderson says. "We have had a lot of vendors on board who helped us build out the tool."

Alderson says the smart grid has reached a level of maturity where these tools can help check for weaknesses. "Our tool [also] helps ... simulate what an attack looks like so they can [detect] it and write rules" to mitigate it, he says. "A lot of vendors have now started to build this into their monitoring software because utilities are asking for it."

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Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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