The smart grid flow of data must be protected from hacker’s eyes

Unlike the traditional power grid, a “smart” grid is designed to accommodate a two-way flow of both electricity and data. This creates great promise, including lower energy prices, increased use of renewable resources and, it is hoped, fewer brownouts and blackouts. But a smart grid also poses several potential security problems—networked meter data, power companies’ computers and those of customers could all be vulnerable to tampering.

A smart grid adds a layer of cybersecurity complexity to challenges that already existed with the traditional grid. In the past, a lot of cybersecurity efforts have focused on securing the bulk transmission system—from the utility company’s generating plants to its substations—because those locations are where the worst-case scenario could happen: a large regional blackout, says Don Von Dollen, a program manager at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a Calif.-based non-profit research center. The bulk transmission system remains the top security priority, but with the dawn of the smart grid, power companies now have to think more about protecting the network connections they have with individual customers’ homes, he adds.

With such scenarios in mind, NIST’s Smart Grid Interoperability Panel–Cyber Security Working Group (SGIP–CSWG) in February released the second draft of its Smart Grid Cyber Security Strategy and Requirements, a 305-page document the agency expects to issue formally by July. It identifies potential vulnerabilities and outlines “recommended requirements” that the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC) can choose to add to its critical infrastructure protection standards. These measures to protect the grid from cyber-tampering would be enforced by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

NIST’s cybersecurity group draws its recommendations from a well-rounded core of more than 400 experts, including those from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, as well as volunteers from academia, law firms, IT and telecommunication companies, and independent security specialists. Aerospace manufacturer Boeing and network technology provider Cisco Systems each have an employee serving as vice-chair of the group.
The document is short on answers regarding exactly how to solve these problems. “This is a starting point. It’s meant to give high-level requirements, not solutions,” says Lee. Rather, the intent is to get government agencies, utility companies and other businesses thinking more about security problems they may not previously have considered when components of the electrical grid were not hooked up to computer networks. NIST notes in this latest draft that without R&D advances to network security, local attacks can become distributed or cascading large-scale attack campaigns.

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