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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Grid not found

An alert reader asks an interesting, and worrisome, question: What happens when all those "smart meters" on the sides of our abodes get hit by a cyber-attack -- or just pick up a computer virus?

Comments (17)

Undoubtedly you will still be billed for services, utilities will simply revert to your historical average consumption rate.

I would imagine the likelihood of something like that happening is minimal. Smart Meters usually connect via either a voice or data line via and then they communicate to a cluster of servers that are distributed across various data centers for redundancy.

Communication from your smart meter to the cluster is sent via encrypted packets and the technology is FIPS compliant at the very least and then usually will have an extra blanket of security.

However if someone were to compromise the cluster they also would have backup systems and intrusion mitigation that would check the integrity of any store data.

So.... in essence every server would need to be hacked and all the data would need to be cracked and to my knowledge none of the FIPS compliant ciphers have been cracked and there are companies offering millions in rewards to any hacker who can do that so if it were likely or possible it would have been done long ago simply for the reward money.

But lets say the system did get hacked or was under a DDoS and the meters could not communicate well in this situation utility companies also have meter readers who can remotely access your meter from I think 200-300 ft with a special reading device that communicates over the same spectrum and uses encryption as well.

I would imagine the likelihood of something like that happening is minimal.




Or what about Uncle Sam thinking I have been using too much and turning off my "smart" refrigerator? Or heat?

"Smart Meters usually connect via either a voice or data line via and then they communicate to a cluster of servers that are distributed across various data centers for redundancy."

Actually, Smart Meters are networked over the power line (via a MODEM) to your house, so I'd assume the power company controls access to that path.

However, I thought someone was thinking of making wireless smart meters also (so a guy can just drive by and read your billing) - Which is a more interesting proposition.

The thought of someone being able to spin their meter backwards (like when you wire a solar panel in) would make an interesting science fair project.

Actually, they are wireless.

When mine was installed, the installer walked out to the sidewalk and held up a reader to confirm performance. He explained that this meant they could just drive down the street and read the meter.

Ho boy....

Here's an abbreviated history of hacking:


If the DOD can be hacked repeatedly, a wireless utility network is child's play.

Not mentioned in the link above is a gentleman who spent some time in Federal prision in Sheridan, OR for his antics at an East Coast telco. He and his pals changed people's land line phone numbers at will. Messed up the billing database (including free calling for themselves). I might have worked with him. At the time of his conviction, he owned an ISP in Oregon.

I can hardly wait.....

Smart Meters usually connect via either a voice or data line

Smart Meters are networked over the power line

The meters used by PGE use a wireless radio frequency and a secure, encrypted datastream.

In fact, the meters aren't even fully-capable "smart meters". A meter reader is still required to drive into the neighborhoods with a laptop equipped with a radio receiver, whose range is only a handful of city blocks. The meters also lack two way communication, so there's really nothing that someone can do to it unless they walk up and pull the meter.

Yes, there are more advanced meters out there that do have two-way communication...but not the ones PGE is using.

In Tillamook County, the local PUD there set up a wireless network so they don't even have meter readers...they can literally ping every meter every single day if they wanted to and obtain daily electric consumption. (The benefit of that is in the event of a power outage, they can ping every meter to see which ones respond and which ones don't to know who is with and without power.)

"Actually, they are wireless."

How are they supposed to be smart then? I thought the concept was to be abel to read them (not too smart) and then use them to cycle on/off appliances in your house depending on load?

Here is some information from PGE on the smart meters: http://www.portlandgeneral.com/our_company/news_issues/current_issues/smart_meters.aspx

Note that they are setting up a complete wireless network, so that driving by isn't required, and communication will be two ways.

On of the features listed in their FAQ, http://www.portlandgeneral.com/our_company/news_issues/current_issues/smart_meters_faq.aspx, is "Connect and disconnect meters remotely from office." and "Direct load control: a program in which customers would agree to permit the utility to turn off certain appliances for limited periods when demand is high."

Just because there are a lot of "features" that can be done, doesn't mean they will be implemented right away.

As for load control, a "smart meter" by itself can't do diddly squat. Yes, with a capable two-way meter you can turn on - or off - the power. That's it. To control individual appliances would require additional equipment beyond the meter, and there is no way PGE could force that on anyone.

The good news here is that equipment designers are finally seeing what the threat environment is really like, and we're still pretty early in smart-meter deployment.

The bad news is that security complacency is abundant. Some utility, somewhere, is going to screw it up royally.

Should be interesting!

Oh, and to Mr. Kerensa, some unsolicited yet well-meant advice.* Your faith in technical security controls is charming, but let me suggest that you at least consider the possibility that it is overly optimistic. As a specific example, consider the military-grade FIPS-compliant system allegedly compromised by Mr. Bradley Manning.† More generally, I suggest you start with reading perhaps a dozen random back issues of Crypto-Gram for some inspiration about imagining What Will Go Wrong.

[*: Which, as with all such, may be as welcome as a punch in the nose. Oh, well, that's the internet for ya.]
[†: Or to put it another way, strong encryption is just one component of a security system, and it's usually the easy and straightforward part.]

To control individual appliances would require additional equipment beyond the meter, and there is no way PGE could force that on anyone.

Erik, they wont have to. The capability will be built into the devices themselves. Some are already starting to show up. There are water heaters, washer/dryers, refrigerators, etc.
And eventually, these types of devices will be the only new appliances available to us.

Actually the PLN (Data over powerline) option has not been used for awhile its all on the wireless spectrum now mostly. Smart meters today have upgraded firmware which techs manually flashed whenever they were required to upgrade.

Manning did not hack into or crack any FIPS compliant system.... He had access to the information he gathered.

B.K.: Yes, exactly my point: no cracking needed. Manning (allegedly) used the system as designed, but maliciously. Are commercial power grids less vulnerable to that sort of compromise - or even weak passwords - than military networks? I think not.

The security message here is that technical measures are just one part of the story. Once can read off encryption and authentication standards from the specifications all day long, but they do not automatically make a secure system. Securing a smart grid that's actually smart enough to be really useful is going to be a colossal pain in the arse. (Especially since end users will have physical access to important nodes in the network.)

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