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Smart Grid – Cyber Security

Today smart grid a buzz word used by every IT/OT technology researcher, evangelists, enthusiasts. But do we really understand what it is, how it is going to change existing energy and utilities landscape, what all security threats and vulnerabilities it may face and what skills we as security professional need to gear ourselves with.

The legacy and analog grid systems are being migrated to ultra advance and digitally enabled smart electric grid systems to establish reliable form of communication between the consumer and the service provider, which will help in meeting exact demand, reducing costs, constant monitoring and power system availability via two way communication channel.

With the introduction of ICT (information and communication technologies) and massive integration between several components to an analog grid environment the landscape becomes more prone to cyber attacks. The arrangement of critical devices integrated with smart and digital technologies should be assessed for security threats and vulnerabilities in order to deploy sufficient solutions to minimize the impact and risks. An attacker can gain unauthorized access to ill-configured systems to destabilize the grid in unpredictable ways.

Security is the key component without it the smart grid network cannot function and sustain. Grids are critical infrastructure and needs to be protected from cyber threats. Due to exceptionally large landscape of distributed systems a smart grid offers a equally large attack surface for the attackers. Grid security can be jeopardized with a successful attack on a critical elements and cascade into a whole system blackout.

Domains in a Grid
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According to NIST the smart grid is composed of 7 domains that are interconnected for improvising the way information flows between these components and which also enhances the business and technical processes involved. These elements are integrated to operate with each other to benefit the service provider and consumer of the service.

 

The advantages of migrating from conventional grid to modern and smart grid does not just end at integration of components, renewable energy and power consumption management. It also improve the reliability of electricity service, automated fault detection, advance safety measures, reducing the environmental impact also and this is possible to achieve through user-centric approach.

Vulnerabilities in Smart Grid
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An attacker with expertise in exploiting vulnerabilities pertaining to IT network can also jeopardized the security of a smart grid due to similar system and network components. The attacks on critical sectors can be categorized into mainly three categories i.e. component, protocol and topology.

  • Vulnerabilities in any component in the field such as RTU (remote terminal units – used in energy sector to remotely command and manage the grid devices). These remotely managed components are subject to attack because the lack security aspect from design level.
  • Protocols (modbus, dnp3) utilized in the critical sectors are vulnerable to various cyber threats such as MiTM, sniffing attacks, buffer overflows, issuance of faulty states, false data injections, etc.
  • Denial of service attacks can also be launched against the grid devices to prevent supervisors from managing the devices.
  • An malicious user can spread malware in the environment through the use of removable devices to infect smart grid devices.
  • Replay attacks can be conducted where and attacker would be able to send false information such as tampered meter data, fake alerts, wrong controller values, etc.
  • Passive traffic analysis would be possible where an attacker would be able to capture and analyse network traffic to decipher critical data, if not encrypted.

The attack vertical range is quite exposed and vulnerable in current grid environment due to the legacy system still in use. Now introducing the smart and digital devices to the conventional grid infrastructure is going to increase the attack vertical, which needs to addresses by the energy and utilities companies along with the vendor developing smart develop from the design level.

A smart grid infrastructure is composed of hundreds of different devices working together to achieve consistent communication channel in between. A grid environment and its related the infrastructure can be segregated into two components systems and network.

  • Systems –  Smart meter, operation center, renewable energy resources, smart house hold appliances
  • Network – HAN (home area network) and WAN (wide area network)

Smart Meter is an embedded device with a volatile and non-volatile memory configured with wireless communication protocols and hardware to send meter readings to your service provider in order to generate accurate bills and for power consumption management. The smart meter acts as a gateway for the in-house smart devices and service providers to collect or feed-in needed information.

The flow of information between the smart in-house appliances and with the service provider can be achieved through various communication technologies already implemented and used widely in IT environment (HAN: Zigbee, wired or wireless, Ethernet and Bluetooth) (WAN: 3G, LTE, WiMax, GSM, fibre optics). This way a 2 way communication channel can be established between the consumer and service provider to send sub-hourly power usage from smart meters and data for constant monitoring to identify any abnormalities. The collection of information, sending instructions, generation of reports all these functions are generally handled by a centralized electric utility center.

In an HAN (home area network) is a small network composed of house hold appliances communicating with smart meters for facilitating efficient power consumption management. HANs are used in residential areas similarly BAN(business area network) & IANs (industrial area network) are used respective areas.

Whereas, WAN (wide area network) is a bigger network and an interconnection of HAN, BAN, IAN, smart meters and utility company.

Scenario to understand the difference:
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Let’s take an simple scenario to understand the advantages

Conventional grid: Customer bought in a new electrical appliance, he plugs it in and start operating. Though the installation and operation wise it seems easy but the customer will never be able to know how much power the new electrical applicance(until unless measures and monitored manually) is consuming and the service provider will not be able to optimize and meet the exact power demand.

Smart grid: Customer bought in a new electrical appliance, he plugs it in, registers the device with service provider over a toll-free call or through a web portal and start operating. Though we have few more steps involved before we can use the applicance, but the customer and the service provider will now be able to eliminate the gaps such as ineffective demand management, absence of critical usage information, accurate billing, smart power consumption, etc.

Bellow picture depicts the changes in conventional and smart grid.

Smart Grid Benefits
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  • Utilities : Larger portfolio of energy resources (renewable/non-renewable), increased grid efficiency and reliability, fewer blackouts and outages, automated fault detection and reduction in human error.
  • Consumer: Increased transparency with energy consumption and billing information, energy cost reduction by detailed pricing during peak hours, fewer billing errors and diversified payment methods.
  • Government: Adherence to international standards, minimized dependency on non-renewable sources by way of alternative renewable source of energy and advanced critical and national infrastructure supporting the countries mission-vision.

Conclusion
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Smart grid is basically an integration between the energy and IT layer which requires seamless integration of the elements like transmission and distribution sources, renewable energy sources, communication systems, etc.

Security should be the prime focus while designing a smart grid from the beginning. As IT and OT environment share the similar cyber threats as both of them work on IP based network. Due to integration being performed on such large scale managing cyber security and cloud computing application becomes a big challenge as the attack surface is also increased.

References:
NIST, clp.com.hk, reserachgate, Internet

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