Smart grid technology vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack, ex­perts say

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Mag­gie Bridge­man Ad­di­tional ma­te­rial from Amer­icanStatesman writer Nau­reen Khan.

WASHINGTON — Bil­lions of dol­lars in govern­ment stim­u­lus money are en­cour­ag­ing util­ity com­pa­nies to ig­nore se­cu­rity risks that could plum­met large metropoli­tan ar­eas into dark­ness, se­cu­rity ex­perts say.

In 2009, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­vided nearly $4 bil­lion to up­grade and dig­i­tize the nation’s elec­tric grid and other util­i­ties us­ing “smart grid” technology. Since then, util­ity com­pa­nies have been scram­bling to roll out pro­grams to in­stall the new technology be­fore fed­eral fund­ing dries up, of­ten with­out re­gard for se­cu­rity, said Jonathan Pol­let, the founder of the se­cu­rity con­sult­ing firm Red Tiger Se­cu­ri­ties.

“The util­i­ties were in a mad grab for money, and al­most ev­ery ma­jor util­ity was able to sub­mit ap­pli­ca­tions for al­most free money,” he said.

Smart grid technology al­lows com­pa­nies and con­sumers to monitor en­ergy us­age. The­o­ret­i­cally, this would en­able con­sumers to re­duce their en­ergy bills and con­serve at times when de­mand and prices for en­ergy are high.

To do this, in­stead of util­ity com­pa­nies send­ing power to con­sumers, smart me­ters at homes and busi­nesses com­mu­ni­cate back to the util­i­ties, re­port­ing us­age with­out the need for tech­ni­cians to visit the sites.

Pol­let said his com­pany found that the grid could be ex­ploited at mul­ti­ple points, start­ing at the me­ters on con­sumers’ homes. If left un­pro­tected, he said, the two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion could act as a start­ing point for hack­ers, and if ex­ploited it could cause sig­nif­i­cant black­outs such as the one in the North­east in Au­gust 2003. That two-day out­age af­fected as many as 50 mil­lion peo­ple and cost an es­ti­mated $6 bil­lion.

In Cen­tral Texas, a hand­ful of util­ity com­pa­nies use smart grid technology, and of­fi­cials with those util­i­ties say they are aware of the se­cu­rity risks and chal­lenges.

Austin’s Pecan Street Project won $10.4 mil­lion in fed­eral stim­u­lus money to cre­ate a smart grid demon­stra­tion project at the Mueller rede­vel­op­ment in East Austin. Pecan Street of­fi­cials said last year that the grant money will help turn Mueller — the city’s for­mer air­port, now a 700-acre com­mu­nity of homes, stores and busi­nesses — into a smart grid model com­mu­nity.

Austin En­ergy has not used any stim­u­lus funds to pay for such projects but is look­ing into in­stalling smart grid com­po­nents in the city.

“We are only in the pi­lot stage of con­cept,” spokesman Ed Clark said. “This will be a very de­lib­er­a­tive process, so when we are ready to im­ple­ment, we will make sure that it’s prop­erly in­stalled, prop­erly pro­tected and takes ad­van­tage of the best technology. As smart grids get de­vel­oped, the technology to pro­tect those girds and en­sure their re­li­a­bil­ity is also go­ing to be de­vel­oped.”

The Bas­trop-based Bluebonnet Elec­tric Co­op­er­a­tive launched a smart grid project for its Cen­tral Texas cus­tom- ers in June. Leslie Bar­rios, man­ager of in­for­ma­tion technology sup­port, said a black­out as se­vere as the one in the North­east in 2003 is highly un­likely.

“Never say never, but there are lay­ers of pro­tec­tion around that,” she said. “In 2003, smart grids were barely even un­der­stood. Lessons have been learned and new tech­nolo­gies have been taken ad­van­tage of.”

Com­puter-se­cu­rity re­search- ers have said smart me­ters that are de­signed to help de­liver elec­tric­ity more ef­fi­ciently also have flaws that could let hack­ers tam­per with the power grid in pre­vi­ously im­pos­si­ble ways.

On­cor Elec­tric De­liv­ery Co. is in­stalling smart me­ters in parts of Wil­liamson and north­ern Travis coun­ties. Austin En­ergy al­ready has in­stalled smart me­ters for most of its cus­tomers. The City of San Mar­cos has in­stalled smart wa­ter and elec­tric me­ters.

Luke Cle­mente, gen­eral man­ager of Metering Sens­ing and Sys­tems at Gen­eral Elec­tric Co., said there’s an on­go­ing in­dus­try ef­fort to se­cure the grid at all points.

“We’re al­ways look­ing for vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and ad­dress­ing those vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties,” he said, “but you’re never done with cy­ber­se­cu­rity. It’s a liv­ing process.”

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