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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Smart grid: prone to cyber attacks

Brian Krebs from Washington Post , reports Tuesday, July 28, 2009. Electric utilities vying for $3.9 billion in new federal "smart grid" grants will need to prove US Energy Department that they are taking steps to prevent cyber attacks as they move to link nearly all elements of the U.S. power grid to the public internet.

The security experts express concern that many existing smart-grid efforts do not have sufficient built-in protections against computer hacking, such as new 'smart meters' that put information about consumers' power use onto the internet, grid-management software and other equipment.

The smart-grid spending in the federal stimulus package is intended to create jobs and improve the efficiency and reliability of the electricity grid by lowering peak demand, reducing energy consumption, integrating more renewable energy sources and easing the pressure to build new coal-fired power plants.

Many of those efficiency gains will be made possible by new technology being built on top of the existing power grid, such as smart meters, which provide real-time feedback on power consumption patterns and levels. An estimated 8 million smart meters are used in the United States today and more than 50 million more could be installed in at least two dozen states over the next five years, according to the Edison Foundation's Institute for Electric Efficiency

The security researchers have found that these devices often are the weakest link in the smart-grid chain. Smart meters give consumers direct access to information about their power usage and the ability to manage that usage over the Web, but that two-way communication also opens up the possibility that the grid could be attacked from the outside. Many such systems require little authentication to carry out key functions, such as disconnecting customers from the power grid.

Indeed, at this week's Black Hat , the world's largest cybersecurity conference held annually in Las Vegas, researchers from IOActive of Seattle shall demonstrate a computer worm that spreads by taking advantage of the software update feature built into a prevalent brand of smart meters. The worm could in theory give the attackers who launched it the ability to very quickly sever tens of thousands of homes from the smart grid.

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