Smart Grid Cyber Security Concerns

By December 22, 2017Technology

In the grand scheme of things, we are on the cusp of (or better yet, in the thick of) a technological revolution in the Power Systems Industry. As all of our everyday interactions become more and more digitized and ultimately connected to the Smart Grid, there has been a gold rush for hackers who want to be the first to penetrate the vulnerabilities of all of these new systems collecting and transferring such data. As we continue to move forward in this direction, our homes are becoming vulnerable devices in themselves on the power grid, and the Smart Meter is the data collection unit that determines how to process the data collected for the best use cases. The Smart Grid at its core is simply a mediator between the point of generation and the consumer in the overall power grid. At each point of information transmission on the grid, there is a risk associated with that transfer that leaves it vulnerable to attack. What does the profile of a grid hacker look like? What types of attacks are most likely to occur in this type of scenario? Let’s Explore!

Below are just a few examples of potential vulnerability consequences that can occur on the Smart Grid system:

  • Identity Theft
  • Accumulation of Personal Behavior Patterns
  • Determination of Specific Appliances Used
  • Real-time Surveillance
  • Targeted Home Invasions
  • Activity Censorship
  • Profiling
  • Behavior Tracking

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the vulnerability ramifications that can be had on the Smart Grid, and there are still many more to be discovered as Smart Grid technology becomes more commonplace in today’s modern infrastructure. Now that we have identified some examples of consequences that can occur on the system, we much go further to identify what devices on the grid are the most prone to unauthorized exposure.

The major components of the Smart Grid that are vulnerable to attack are:

  • Electrical Household Appliances (connected by a HAN)
  • Renewable Energy Resources
  • Smart Meter
  • Electric Utility Operation Center
  • Service Providers

All of the abovementioned components provide the kind of information that is valuable for a hacker to obtain from the Smart Grid and serve as potential access points. Due to the personalized nature of the information flowing through a Home Area Network (HAN), the Smart Meter and the HAN are most likely (in my opinion) to be initially targeted by hackers. If a hacker can get unauthorized entry into the HAN, they can effectively control your devices remotely, perform surveillance, and even alter you energy usage readings, effectively increasing your bill. Consumers have predetermined access to the grid and its features, allowing them to monitor usage information and assist with them with making better, informed decisions regarding energy consumption. Even the slightest manipulation of this info can have catastrophic effects across the grid. Imagine someone being able to hack into a Smart Meter, gather information about all the devices connected to your home, find the easiest point of entry, and watch you through your computer camera, see real-time changes on your TV screen, or even worse, record you through your devices microphones without you ever knowing. Another concern is the potential leakage of personally identifiable information (PII). It’s amazing how much of our personal information is exchanged between different parties. If you were to buy yourself a “Smart Toaster” for example, there is a chance that the manufacturer has the technology coded to share its usage information with the manufacturer (and potential third parties) so that they can understand how their products are being used and by whom. No different than ad tracking on your computer browser, but with the trackers implemented right into the devices themselves. If the manufacturers of these devices do not have an adequate amount of cyber protection protocols instituted, they run the risk of becoming the most vulnerable means for hackers to breach your privacy. Taking what we understand on a micro level as it relates to the consumer, let’s look at these vulnerabilities on the macro level as it relates to the grid overall.

If a hacker can get unauthorized access anywhere on the grid, they can effectively increase the demand of energy from the closest generation point to unsafe levels to the point that it ultimately shuts down most if not all of the grid. One of the main performance points of the technology is the ability to locate outages, mitigate the issues, and decrease outage times by sending for maintenance crews all in real time. A hacker can easily trick the system into giving a “false alarm,” which wastes not only time and money but the vital resources needed for actual outages; this increases response times and costs the power companies and the tax paying consumers millions of dollars over time. If that’s not bad enough, the Smart Grid also exposes national security concerns. There have been reports made regarding potential attacks from foreign nationals injecting malicious software into the power grid. If this were to happen, hackers could take control of key facilities and manipulate segments of the economy.

The approach to protecting the Grid is not as simple as some might assume. As stated in a report put out by the Department of Computer Science at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, security solutions developed for traditional information technology (IT) networks are not effective in grid networks [6] because of the major differences between them. Their security objectives are different in the sense that security in IT networks aims to enforce the three security principles (confidentiality, integrity, and availability), while security in automation (Grid) networks aims to provide human safety, equipment and power line protection, and system operation. Moreover, the security architecture of IT networks differs from that of the Grid network since security in IT networks is achieved by providing more protection at the center of the network (where the data resides), while the protection in automation networks is done at the network center and edge.

The report goes on to suggest specific strategies to protect access points. They elude to widely used techniques that can be implemented immediately, such as:

  • Identity verification through strong authentication mechanisms
  • Malware protection on both Embedded and General purpose systems
  • Network Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) and Network Intrusion Detection System (IDS) technologies that augment the host-based defenses to protect the system from outside and inside attacks
  • Vulnerability assessments performed at least annually to ensure that elements that interface with the perimeter are secure

The rest of these strategies can be found here.

In summation, the Smart Grid is the one of the greatest advancements to the Power Grid to come along since its inception in the 1870’s, but because of its complex nature, it is increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks. Potential cyber criminals can steal PII, alter energy usage information, perform unwarranted surveillance, access grid control centers, and ultimately shut down or disrupt large potions of the power grid remotely. In order to protect the grid, the implementation of widely used security protocols is necessary from the onset. Furthers studies are underway to continue to build upon the current technological infrastructure to make it more secure for the consumer,the providers, and all entities in between.

Ameer Baker

Author Ameer Baker

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