But smart grids might be vulnerable to attacks that would allow nefarious hackers to cut off electricity to homes and businesses and create other kinds of havoc. One possible attack vector is a smart grid's communications infrastructure. For example, Morehouse says, a German utility company called Yello Strom uses a consumer smart grid system that works like a home automation kit -- the sensors report energy usage back to the central server via the user's home Wi-Fi network.
Because of this, Morehouse says, it is possible for end users to tap into their own networks and gain access to the substation used for delivering power. "Often it's the case that these types of networks are not properly segmented or protected," he says. "Once in, the attacker may be treated as a trusted user and have access to other areas. Is there the potential that they could disrupt the substation or city? Absolutely. They may plant a back door that could allow the grid to be powered down at a particular time."
Utilities in the U.S. tend to use their own proprietary wired or wireless connections to sensors, but Morehouse is concerned that some may follow Yello Strom's example and use home networks instead.
Another concern is vulnerabilities in the smart meters themselves -- a problem that affects corporate smart grids as well. Researchers from Seattle-based security services vendor IOActive, for instance, discovered several bugs in smart grid devices that criminal hackers could exploit to access the smart grid network and cut power to customers.
"Hackers use press releases to find out the technologies [used in corporate smart grids] and go back to the infrastructure and find vulnerabilities. So, for example, if Wal-Mart announces a smart grid using Siemens technology, a hacker suddenly has many of the answers they need to find that controller and break in," Morehouse says.
The most effective preventive measure, says Morehouse, is rigid isolation -- a smart grid should not touch any other network, ever. He says there is an urgent need for penetration testing and making sure the firewall in a closed network is secure because of the possible dangers of gaining access to the power grid. He advises using tools such as Core Impact and Metasploit.
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