The U.S. Smart Grid Is Shaping Up to Be Dangerously Insecure

Simple diagram of electricity grids in North A...
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Achieving greater efficiency and control requires hooking almost every aspect of the electricity grid up to the Internet, making it more vulnerable to cyber attack.

President Barack Obama’s talk about the need for a “smart grid” sounds, well, smart. What’s not to like about the idea of an electricity grid that can work at top efficiency? By wrapping power transmission lines in advanced information technologies and the Internet, a smart grid would enable us to integrate alternative energy sources such as rooftop solar panels and local wind turbines into the power supply, balance supply with demand and optimize the flow of power to each consumer—even down to the level of individual appliances. It would vastly improve the reliability, availability and efficiency of the electric system. As currently envisaged, however, it’s a dangerously dumb idea.

The problem is cybersecurity. Achieving greater efficiency and control requires hooking almost every aspect of the electricity grid up to the Internet—from the smart meter that will go into each home to the power transmission lines them selves. Connecting what are now isolated systems to the Internet will make it possible to gain access to remote sites through the use of modems, wireless networks, and both private and public networks. And yet little is being done to make it all secure.

The grid is already more open to cyberattacks than it was just a few years ago. The federal government has catalogued tens of thousands of reported vulnerabilities in the 200,000-plus miles of high-voltage transmission lines, thousands of generation plantsand millions of digital controls. Utilities and private power firms have failed to install patches in security software against malware threats. Information about vendors, user names and passwords has gone unsecured. Logon information is sometimes unencrypted. Some crucial systems allow unlimited entry attempts from outside.

As the power industry continues to invest in information tech nology, these vulnerabilities will only get worse. Smart meters with designated public IP addresses may be susceptible to denial of service attacks, in which the devices are overwhelmed with spurious requests—the same kind of attacks now made on Web sites. Such an attack could result in loss of communication between the utility and meters—and the subsequent denial of power to your home or business.

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