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By Marc Meulensteen, in Enterprise

23 Jan 13. According to the British government’s Energy.gov website: “Smart grid” generally refers to a class of technology people are using to bring utility electricity delivery systems into the 21st century. It’s a great idea, but with one major drawback: the 21st century is becoming a dangerous place for innocent newcomers – however smart.

According to US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, attackers “are targeting the computer control systems that operate chemical, electricity and water plants, and those that guide transportation throughout the country”. Speaking at the annual awards dinner of Business Executives for National Security in October, he concluded that: “A cyber attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremist groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11”.

The Smart Grid

The idea of a smart grid is being applied across a wide range of public utilities, transport and industrial control systems, but the most obvious example is electricity: where a “national grid” delivers power to homes and business via wires, substations transformers, switches etc.

This is largely a one-way transfer: from power station to the consumer. Meanwhile data from the users and network infrastructure has traditionally been gathered by sending out staff to read meters, and engineers to inspect the system for broken cables or faults.

A smart grid, however, uses two-way communication and computer processing to gather such information. This not only saves money, by reducing the need for field staff, it also allows real-time data gathering that can increase efficiency. With the move to ‘green energy’ it becomes all the more important to respond quickly to changing consumer demand and faults, and a smart grid makes that possible.

An electrical grid is fundamental to electricity delivery, but the use of electrical control grids extends to a whole range of national services: transport, water and waste, gas supply and industrial control systems all rely on instructions transmitted from a central controller to outlying switches or traffic signals. And in every case there will be potential benefits from upgrading these into two-way smart grids – allowing, for example, the immediate detection of leaks in a water main.

What sort of communication is used on a smart grid? The default option for most computer communication is Internet Protocol, so that the smart grid becomes an intranet linking all its parts. And when it comes to connecting individual homes and far-flung sites it makes good sense to connect via the ubiquitous Internet rather than lay new cables. This is exactly where the greatest vulnerability can arise – welcome to the 21st century!

Defending a permeable grid

In theory a utility smart grid could be totally independent of the Internet, running on its own dedicated cabling across the nation. But in practice it often makes sense to use existing telecommunication lines rather than laying new cables, especially to far-flung sites. The same thing has been happening in business organisations, where previously independent systems such as fire and burglar alarms, smoke detection, and industrial control systems increasingly run across the same corporate IT network.

But even if an attempt is made to quarantine the smart grid from the Internet, it is not easy to maintain that state. Corporate IT networks have for years been facing the challenge of “network permeability”: whereas the earliest networks consisted of isolated computers linked by cables, today’s networks have to cope with mobile staff plugging in their laptops anywhere on the network, also with wireless access from smartphones and with data transfer via USB memory sticks.

So, instead of sealing the network from the Internet, the main focus has been on ways to run secure services over the Internet. A host of solutions are available, including fir

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