Can we truly ensure Smart Grid security?
Smart Grid is an interconnected network of smart devices and IT systems where electricity and information flow freely. This makes an electric grid more reliable. But when systems are connected to a wider network, substantial security risks are incurred. There are three main security concerns regarding Smart Grid:
- Ability to confirm authenticity of the other party and communicate only with genuine parties.
- Integrity of the data flowing through the Smart grid network.
- Ability to withstand sustained attacks, and quickly recover from such attacks.
When corporate systems are already exposed to outside network and supposedly protected from risks, what is the issue with Smart Grid security? Can we not use those methods to secure Smart Grid? The key differences between corporate IT systems and Smart Grid systems are:
- Smart Grid systems are considered as vital national infrastructure and need to be more robust to ensure energy security.
- Power system operation must continue in the event of an attack and should recover quickly from any damage.
- The complexity of the modern Smart Grid system exposes it to risks and threats.
- Millions of devices and systems connected to each other in the Grid offer multiple entry points for potential attackers.
- Any breach of data security will offer analysis and malicious usage of the humongous amount of data collected, transmitted and stored.
- Many connections on Smart Grid will have longer durations; sometimes permanent, which increases the risk.
- Many end points in Smart Grid will have very limited processing power and storage, making it unfeasible to use certificates and sophisticated encryption algorithms.
- Many links in the Smart Grid network will have low communication bandwidth that will limit the security measures taken.
- Unlike corporate IT systems, you may not be able to quickly apply patches when new vulnerabilities are discovered.
Testing is going to be challenging because the normal operation should not have an impact during security testing. The impact of security breach will vary based on the system breached. These are some scenarios that are feasible:
- The attacker gains access to millions of smart meters and then shuts them down remotely using a remote disconnect feature in modern smart meters. In a worst case scenario, the built in configuration is changed; so meters stop communicating with the central server altogether. The only option would be to reload the firmware in millions of those meters.
- The attacker can disrupt the load balance of the local system by suddenly decreasing or increasing the demand for power.
- A generator can be manipulated to self-destruct using computer and communication systems connected to that generator. The Stuxnet kind of computer worm can overtake the power plant’s industrial control systems by infecting SCADA software and can destabilize the closed loop feedback control and self-destruct the plant.
- The lead time required to replace a damaged transformer and its critical role in the grid would make this a serious threat.
- Smart Grid technologies will offer Home Energy management solution to the end consumers where they will have control over the use of energy. This is possible because future smart appliances for homes are connected to the Home energy gateway or a Smart Meter, which can be used to set usage configurations based on options like Time of Use (TOU), real time tariff, Time of the Day, etc. This results in significant savings of energy and cost. This increases vulnerability at the consumer’s end. Such breach can impact both privacy and availability for them. Researchers have demonstrated that you can glean insights into a typical day at home by looking at the energy consumption. Based on energy signature, you can find out which appliance was used when, or if the house is occupied at the moment. The attacker may even send wrong energy usage data to the MDMS system causing monetary losses for consumers and potential disputes with utility.
- Even law enforcing agencies routinely use energy data for consumer protection and civil liberty groups are concerned about loss of privacy.
The news articles on future attacks on the US Smart Grid also make it clear that we may never be able to safeguard it completely from all threats. Is quick detection followed by quick recovery and response the only strategy available to protect our energy supply?