Smart-grid tech outpacing security, in 'delicate dance with risk'

Development and deployment of smart-grid technology such as intelligent electric meters has outpaced security, setting up a “delicate dance with risk,” said the head of the industry advisory group EnergySec.

“We’re not going to stop the roll-out of the technology, so what do we do when things go wrong?” said EnergySec CEO Patrick Miller. “We’ve got to try to find ways to implement new options in measurement and repair,” that will allow rapid response to failures and breaches.

Given the critical nature of the power grid and high profile of cyber threats to it, this is not a popular view with many security professionals. But Miller said installation of equipment already is under way and slowing down to wait for security to catch up is not an option.

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“The hackers will outpace that technology,” he said. But the inevitable risk must be intelligently managed. “Hope is not a strategy. You should go into this knowing the risks,” and with plans to mitigate and respond to it.

Miller made his comments in the wake of a survey of energy industry security professionals in which large majorities of respondents said that security controls and standards are not keeping pace with the rollout of new equipment.

The Energy Sector Security Consortium (EnergySec) is a non-profit forum for the exchange of security information among asset owners, industry partners and the U.S. government. It started in 2005 as E-SEC NW and has grown from an informal regional industry group in the Pacific Northwest to include more than 220 members in this country and Canada since its launch as a national organization in December 2008.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has been charged in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 with identifying and developing the technical standards needed to ensure that utilities, manufacturers, equipment testers and regulators will be working on the same page. The agency recently released an updated version of its Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability that identifies technical standards for interoperability, and also is identifying security standards for the industry.

But standards development is a slow process, and 75 percent of the 104 respondents in the survey, which was done in partnership with the security company nCircle, said security has not yet been adequately addressed in smart-grid deployment. Seventy-two percent said development of security standards are not keeping pace with deployment and another 61 percent said that security controls on current smart meters are not adequate.

Although a slim majority of respondents — 53 percent — said that security issues have been overblown, 70 percent said that smart meters and the metering infrastructure, including transport networks, are the most vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Developing standards for the grid took on urgency in 2009 when $4.5 billion was made available through the Energy Department in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the development of smart-grid technologies, to modernize existing infrastructure and fund demonstration and deployment programs.

NIST developed a three-phase plan to accelerate the identification of existing standards applicable to the smart grid; establish a Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) of government, standards organizations and industry group for the development of the many additional standards that will be needed; and to create a conformity testing and certification infrastructure.

Miller does not fault NIST’s performance.

“The standards-making process is intentionally slow,” he said. “NIST is probably working as fast as NIST could.” But because new networked equipment already is being installed in the energy infrastructure, “somebody is going to have to swallow the reality that innovation will outpace standardization.”

An area of current rapid deployment is smart meters, which allow the networked flow of information to and from customer premises to enable greater visibility and control of energy usage.

“These things aren’t cheap,” Miller said, and the industry expects them to remain in place for 15 to 20 years before being replaced. But some security professionals are warning that they could need to be replaced as soon as five years.

Miller said the solution is to make new equipment modular and remotely upgradable through software and firmware updates, he said. This could allow mitigation of threats as they are identified without wholesale replacement of equipment.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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