Smart Grids and Security (Intro)

By Rich

It’s not often, but every now and then there are people in our lives we can clearly identify as having a massive impact on our careers. I don’t mean someone we liked to work with, but someone who gave us that big break, opportunity, or push in the right direction that leads you to where you are today.

In my case I know exactly who helped me make the transition from academia to the career I have today. I met Jim Brancheau while I was working at the University of Colorado as a systems and network administrator. He was an information systems professor in the College of Business, and some friends roped me into taking his class even though I was a history and molecular biology major. He liked my project on security, hired me to do some outside consulting with him, and eventually hired me full time after we both left the University. That company was acquired by Gartner, and the rest is history. Flat out, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Jim’s help.

Jim and I ended up on different teams at Gartner, and we both eventually left. After taking a few years off to ski and hike, Jim’s back in the analyst game focusing on smart grids and sustainability at Carbon Pros, and he’s currently researching and writing a new book for the corporate world on the topic. When he asked me to help out on the security side, it was an offer Karma wouldn’t let me refuse.

I covered energy/utilities and SCADA issues back in my Gartner days, but smart grids amplify those issues to a tremendous degree. Much of the research I’ve seen on security for smart grids has focused on metering systems, but the technologies are extending far beyond smarter meters into our homes, cars, and businesses. For example, Ford just announced a vehicle to grid communications system for hybrid and electric vehicles. Your car will literally talk to the grid when you plug it in to enable features such as only charging at off-peak rates.

I highly recommend you read Jim’s series on smart grids and smart homes to get a better understanding of where we are headed. For example, opt-in programs where you will allow your power company to send signals to your house to change your thermostat settings if they need to broadly reduce consumption during peak hours. That’s a consumer example, but we expect to see similar technologies also adopted by the enterprise, in large part due to expected cost-savings incentives.

Thus when we talk about smart grids, we aren’t going to limit ourselves to next-gen power grid SCADA or bidirectional meters, but try and frame the security issues for the larger ecosystem that’s developing. We also have to discuss legal and regulatory issues, such as the draft NIST and NERC/FERC standards, as well as technology transition issues (since legacy infrastructure isn’t going away anytime soon).

Jim kicked off our coverage with this post over at Carbon Pros, which introduces the security and privacy principles to the non-security audience. I’d like to add a little more depth in terms of how we frame the issue, and in future posts we’ll dig into these areas.

From a security perspective, we can think of a smart grid as five major components in two major domains. On the utilities side, there is power generation, transmission, and the customer (home or commercial) interface (where the wires drop from the pole to the wall). Within the utilities side there are essentially three overlapping networks – the business network (office, email, billing), the control process/SCADA network (control of generation and transmission equipment), and now, the emerging smart grid network (communications with the endpoint/user). Most work and regulation in recent years (the CIP requirements) have focused on defining and securing the “electronic security perimeter”, which delineates the systems involved in the process control side, including both legacy SCADA and IP-based systems.

In the past, I’ve advised utilities clients to limit the size and scope of their electronic security perimeter as much as possible to reduce both risks and compliance costs. I’ve even heard of some organizations that put air gaps back in place after originally co-mingling the business and process control networks to help reduce security and compliance costs. The smart grid potentially expands this perimeter by extending what’s essentially a third network, the smart grid network, to the meter in the residential or commercial site. That meter is thus the interface to the outside world, and has been the focus of much of the security research I’ve seen. There are clear security implications for the utility, ranging from fraud to distributed denial of generation attacks (imagine a million meters under-reporting usage all at the same time).

But the security domain also extends into the endpoint installation as it interfaces with the external side (the second domain) which includes the smart building/home network, and smart devices (as in refrigerators and cars). The security issues for residential and commercial consumers are different but related, and expand into privacy concerns. There could be fraud, denial of power, privacy breaches, and all sorts of other potential problems. This is compounded by the decentralization and diversity of smart technologies, including a mix of powerline, wireless, and IP tech.

In other words, smart grid security isn’t merely an issue for electric utilities – there are enterprise and consumer requirements that can’t be solely managed by your power company. They may take primary responsibility for the meter, but you’ll still be responsible for your side of the smart network and your usage of smart appliances.

On the upside, although there’s been some rapid movement on smart metering, we still have time to develop our strategies for management of our side (consumption) of smart energy technologies. I don’t think we will all be connecting our thermostats to the grid in the next few months, but there are clearly enterprise implications and we need to start investigating and developing strategies for smart grid management.

Thus as I start writing more about smart grid security we will split our focus out to talk about the differing strategies we’ll need on the utilities and consumption sides. Where possible I’ll tie into existing technologies, but much of this is under (rapid) development, so I may need to be a bit more generic than I like.

As a home automation and security geek I find this area absolutely fascinating. There is some very cool technology coming down the pipe, with benefits on all sides. And rather than flailing around over falling skies, there are some definite steps we can take to improve our security on both sides of the smart grid equation.

No Related Posts

If you like to leave comments, and aren’t a spammer, register for the site and email us at and we’ll turn off moderation for your account.