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Smart grids more vulnerable to cyber attack

The idea of the ‘smart grid‘ is to transform electricity grids (the network of transmission lines, substations, transformers and more that deliver electricity) to grids that allow for two-way communication between the utility and its customers. These modernized grids consist of controls, computers, automation and new technologies and equipment working together. The primary aim is to allow utility providers to rapidly respond to changing electric demand, triggering measures like bidirection energy flows. As technology develops, smart grids will be capable of improved fault detection and even for self-healing without the need for technician involvement, with the aim of reducing downtime.

A downside of this technological advancement, new research indicates, is increased vulnerability to cyberattack. The research team is led by Dr. Sujeet Shenoi, from the Tandy School of Computer Science, University of Tulsa, U.S. The types of security issues of concern are: customer data being stolen (allowing a burglar to determine if a residence is unoccupied, for instance); taking power from particular customers (resulting in increased power bills); disrupting the grid; and interventions that deny customers power on a localized or widespread basis.

Power Grid Network

An interconnected electrical grid network for delivering electricity from suppliers to consumers.
Doug Waldron

Dr. Shenoi bases his concerns upon analysis of an advanced metering infrastructure. This network was made up of over a million smart meters, over a hundred data collectors and two data management systems. By running computer models, the researchers gained a detailed evaluation of the infrastructure’s ‘attack surface’, together with targetable elements in the system (like data collectors), and the potential attack types. The impact assessment revealed that security systems were weak. The research concludes that stronger security measures are needed in advance of the roll-out of the smart grid.

The grid vulnerabilities are present in a paper published in the International Journal of Critical Infrastructure Protection. The paper is headed “Security analysis of an advanced metering infrastructure.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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