Cyber Security Strategies for the Smart Grid


09Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) just released a report saying that many U.S. utilities face attacks on their networks every day. Utility companies have disputed the claims, arguing that North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) standards protect the grid from cyber attacks. However, a recent study by Black & Veatch revealed that at least one in five companies had neither identified critical assets nor used a security and risk management tool to develop strategies that could prevent service disruptions.

NERC CEO Gerry Cauley said that he’s more concerned about physical attacks than cyber attacks. However, many members of Congress expressed concern that cyber criminals and activists like Anonymous would eventually launch an attack on the U.S. power grid.

Security Challenges for the Smart Grid

As traditional utility grids transition to smart grid technology, they become prime targets for potential acts of cyber terrorism. Protecting the smart grid requires dealing with a few unique challenges, including:

  • Remote Access:Since the “Great Blackout of 2003” the energy sector has pursued a business continuity strategy which incorporates IP protocols and remote access to the ICS systems; this allows for these once “air-gapped” systems to become vulnerable to manipulation via cyber attack.
  • Size and scale. Cisco suggests that the communications infrastructure powering the smart grid could end up being larger than the Internet. Security challenges include integrating wired and wireless communications networks, identity management for a huge number of entities and segmentation without negative impacts on reliability and availability.
  • Legacy assets. Much of the utility system’s infrastructure is decades old. Utilities may be investing over $200 billion in the smart grid, but their current legacy assets far outstrip that number. They will be spending money on M2M technology that connects legacy assets to the appropriate applications. Cyber security requires protecting all of these new M2M devices and connections.
  • Field devices. The smart grid relies on a number of field devices, like smart meters. These devices are vulnerable to physical attacks, so the network’s security design cannot rely on these machines.
  • Proprietary protocols. Many utilities are designing their security solutions with proprietary protocols instead of going with peer-reviewed security algorithms.  These protocols will contain many more vulnerabilities which will become remotely exploitable. Criminals will eventually discover the proprietary solution vulnerabilities, and utilities won’t have the luxury of relying on a large network of minds to develop fast fixes for intrusions.
  • Poor interoperability. Early solutions for the smart grid were installed without security standards and independent testing. Poor interoperability between multiple vendor solutions resulted, which leads to network management difficulties.

Problems That Cyber Security Solutions Need to Solve

Good smart grid security solutions have to tackle the following tasks:

  • Attack Path Mapping.   Situational awareness is an imperative thus conducting quarterly penetration tests to ascertain the viability of cyber attacks upon your infrastructure is paramount to improving your incidence response planning.
  • Identity management. The smart grid has to be protected from authorized access at several key points. Because the utilities are collecting data on customer energy usage, they have access to information that could affect customer privacy. Also, intruders can tamper with distribution devices using their own unauthorized devices. Authentications of commands and data confidentiality necessitate a high-quality identity management strategy.
  • System integrity. The utilities have to make sure that smart grid devices are not subject to tampering or manipulation by non-grid devices or remote integrity attacks. If field devices are compromised, then utilities should ensure that the grid itself has security to protect upstream assets from unauthorized commands, DDoS attacks and unauthorized access.
  • Threat protection.Utility corporate networks require security for vital functions like e-mail, Internet and telephone, and corporate turnkey solutions need to interoperate with field security solutions. Also, remote access to both networks and field devices should be restricted to time of day and function. Utilities have to decide how to isolate and reroute grid traffic in the event of a cyber security threat. In addition, alarm data has to be coordinated with other sensors so that utilities can prevent false positives.

Risk Assessment

The first step in risk assessment for the smart grid is to identify critical assets. Look at both the data center that distributes energy and the intelligent end devices that control flow and ensure grid reliability. Second, review potential security risk points related to identity management, system integrity and threat protection. Also, consider how you’re addressing the challenges of scale, legacy integration, field devices, proprietary protocols and interoperability.

Finally, engage regulators.  Approach early adopters of smart grid, such as those who participated in the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program from the Department of Energy. Chances are, they’ve already developed best practices that you can adopt, which will save your company a great deal of time, money and resources.

About the Author: Tom Kellermann is Vice President of Cyber Security for Trend Micro.  Tom is responsible for analysis of emerging cyber security threats and relevant defensive technologies.  Tom is a Professor at American University’s School of International Service, a Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) and co-authored the book “E-safety and Soundness: Securing Finance in a New Age.”

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