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U.S. Infrastructure: Smart Grid Security

December 16, 2011

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Smart grids might revolutionize energy use and delivery, but there are associated security risks, particularly regarding communications technology.

Just about every great scientific advance comes with a catch. The Romans' pioneering work on domestic plumbing brought with it widespread lead poisoning. No sooner had penicillin come into everyday use than bacteria was mutating into more virulent and resistant forms. More recently, the rise of the internet has allowed us to shop, communicate and work without ever leaving our homes, while simultaneously making us targets for a faceless army of online crooks and scammers. Now the smart grid is promising to revolutionize the way energy is delivered and used, throwing the systems that preceded it into the dustbin of history. For utilities it enables closer control of the network, the ability to manage peak loads and new ways to push energy efficiency. For consumers, there is the chance to save money by monitoring energy usage and a potential end to frustrating power outages. But just as with previous leaps forward, there can't be a silver lining without a cloud, and concerns are being raised about new security vulnerabilities the move towards smart power might bring.

Misgivings chiefly center around the communications technology at the heart of the smart grid. Designed to allow real-time contact between utilities and meters in customers' homes and businesses, there is a very real risk that these capabilities could be exploited for more nefarious ends. One of the key capabilities of this connectivity is the ability to remotely switch off power supplies, enabling utilities to quickly and easily cut off or modify supplies to customers who default on payment. This undoubtedly a massive boon for energy providers, but also raises some significant security issues.

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