News Analysis

Smart meter and smart grids: security risk or opportunity?

Warwick Ashford

A smart meter in every home in the UK by 2017 is the government plan as a first step towards a smart grid, but how can we ensure the benefits will outweigh the security risks?

With declining natural reserves of hydrocarbon fuel and increasing energy demands, we must understand our energy requirements so we can prepare for the future and devise flexible payment plans.

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Supporters of the smart grid idea are quick to point out that smart meters will provide that information as well as an opportunity to manage power demands and increase energy efficiency and reduce waste.

Consumers will be able to choose an energy supplier that can provide the best value according to their needs. And by collecting precise readings, it may be possible to route suppliers intelligently to meet requirements.

But while smart meters and smart grids have great potential to benefit energy suppliers and consumers, security experts are concerned that careless implementation of the enabling technology has just as much potential to be abused.

In a post-Stuxnet world, it can no longer be argued that such systems can be air-gapped successfully and thereby made completely secure.

"When estimating the risk level of any new technology, we have to think about the potential attackers and their motives," said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer, F-Secure. "Why would somebody attack this? How likely is that? What would they gain?

"For example, if we compare two technologies that are emerging, internet connectivity to kitchen appliances and the smart power grid, there is not much to be gained from hacking a fridge, so the risk is not likely, but extremists might want to take down electricity nationwide.

"What would they gain? Nationwide panic and chaos. How likely is this risk? Eventually, somebody will attempt it."

Free electricity was another important motivation that could not be ignored, Hypponen said, so smart meters also need to be secure from ordinary consumers.

In fact, obtaining free electricity is likely to be a greater motivation than running a botnet on smart meters, according to Andrew Yeomans, founder member of the ISAF and Jericho Forum.

However, we should not lose sight of the fact that information about who uses what electrical devices at particular times of the day, would represent a highly valuable marketing resource, said Mike Westmacot, chair of the BCS Young Professionals Information Security Group.

Also, if usage data ever fell into the wrong hands, criminals would have a complete profile of when people were likely to be away from home, said Tim Holman, president of the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA).

With around 40 million smart meters in use worldwide, even at this early stage, there have been a number of security breaches, said Raj Samani of the Cloud Security Alliance.

"These include insecure meters, hacking of customer details, denial of service attacks and suspected infiltration by foreign intelligence services," he said, citing Ian Watts, head of energy and utilities at Detica.

In 2009, said Samani, a team of researchers had identified a number of programming errors on smart meter platforms, which allowed them to assume full system control of smart meters. "Although this impacts only individual meters, other demonstrations have shown one meter can be used to spread a worm between meters, which could result in a power surge or a shutdown of the grid," he said.

Without knowing exactly what technology will be used in the UK or how it will be implemented, it is difficult to assess what the risks will be, but there appears to be good reason for concern that failings elsewhere in the world could be repeated.

In any project, financial concerns typically outweigh most others, so there is a very real risk that standard smart metering devices and networking techniques and equipment will be used as far as possible to keep down costs.

"Current smart meter technology is 10 years old and was not developed to be integrated with other systems," warned John Colley, managing director of the EMEA region for (ISC)2.

Security was rarely the driving force behind any programme that sought to network significant resources and a broad user base, he said, but the UK must ensure that in moving to a smart grid, security was central to the systems design, not an afterthought.

It is of paramount importance, says Samani, that the design of the smart grid addresses security early.

"This should include embedding security into devices and defining their secure operation before rolling them out," he said.

There also needed to be thorough testing of all aspects from smart grid design to the individual devices themselves, added Yeomans.

Sarb Sembhi, chair of the ISACA Security Advisor Group, pointed out that manufacturers tended to use software components that had not been developed with security in mind and tendend to believe that as security was not their expertise, security should be implemented at a network level rather than built into the product.

According to the Information Security Forum (ISF) there are four design issues that must be addressed.

First, meeting the confidentiality, integrity availability and legal privacy requirements related to information collected by energy suppliers. Second, the physical and information security of the meters themselves. Third, the security of the communication links with the meters, and fourth, ensuring the meters will not create an entry point for attacks on the UK's critical national infrastructure.

The UK should adopt a standard that would set a common baseline from which security could be developed and enhanced, said Adrian Davis, principal research analyst at the ISF.

"The second step is to use the design to build in security tools such as strong authentication, anti-tamper mechanisms, reporting and on-board malware protection, and firewall software," he added.

There will also be a need to encrypt transmissions, upgrade infrastructure to handle the volume of traffic that may be generated and provide a backup should the communications link fail.

Security by design, then, is considered essential by most security experts if the UK is to limit the risks of a smart grid, but Samani believes this can be achieved only through public and private sector partnership, such as the NIST Cyber Security Coordination Task Group.

"The work of this group and the creation of a Security Technical Experts Group that looks at the end-to-end security of the smart meter roll-out in the UK, are certainly steps in the right direction," he said.

Smart meters, and the evolution to smart grids is an opportunity to demonstrate that our digital society can be a secure one, according to (ISC)2's John Colley. "Let's hope it is not missed," he says.

The security implications of smart meters >>


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