Smart energy brings efficiency, but risk of cyber attacks

"It is a strategic threat no less than the threat of war or natural disaster," says IEC official Yitzhak Balmas

Cyber hackers [illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cyber hackers [illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the current buzzwords in the world of electricity and energy production is “smart,” a reference to any energy system that is connected, monitored and manipulated to increase efficiency. Increasingly cheap sensors and chips are helping create smart streets, smart buildings, smart grids and smart cities.
But with great (electrical) power comes great vulnerability.
“The cyber threat is an existential threat,” said Emil Koifman, chairman of the SEEEI electricity conference, taking place this week in Eilat. “The moment you’re connected to a certain system, it can be taken over.
You can take down a power station or the whole system.”
Yitzhak Balmas, of the Israel Electric Corporation, said the infrastructure threat should have the highest priority.
“This entire [system] that we’re putting in is a strategic danger, and we’ve seen it around the world. On the one hand it brings great efficiencies, but on the other hand it invites a serious danger,” he said.
“It’s a strategic threat no less than the threat of war or the threat of attack or the threat of natural disaster,” he added.
Already, Israeli companies are stepping in to ensure that Israel’s critical infrastructure – its electricity, water, communications systems and roads – are safe.
Waterfall Security Solutions, for example, helps secure electrical infrastructure, and is used not only in Israel, but in Singapore, South Korea and Japan. Even the US uses it in some of its nuclear plants.
“It’s an honor and pride that an Israeli company can sell to the most sensitive aspect of the United States,” said Amir Grovais, a regional sales manager for Waterfall.
It works by using oneway transmitters to ensure that outside signals do not reach critical infrastructure.
But because networks are so complex, multiple defenses are required. If someone managed to get a USB key into a critical system, Grovais said, it would still be a problem.
“There’s no silver bullet.There’s no one product that protects against all attacks.”
Another company, Cyber-Gym, promises to train IT personnel in how to battle a real-time attack by creating a war-game simulation.
Some 95% of cyber crimes involve human errors, said CyberGym’s Ofir Hason, citing a 2014 IBM study.
“You can have the nicest car on the market, but if you don’t know how to drive and don’t do the proper upkeep, it’s no better than any other car,” he said by way of example.
Some may argue that the elevated threat isn’t worth the benefits of connected energy solutions, but proponents, such as Philippe Brami of Schneider Electric Israel, say are not merely a luxury.
One reason, Brami argues, is that cities are growing.
Cities cover just 2% of the earth’s surface, but account for over half of its population, who consume 75% of its energy and emit 80% of man-made carbon into the atmosphere. Projections show that by 2050, the proportion of people living in cities will grow to 70%, and by 2055 urban capacity will need to double. Smart solutions, Brami says, are necessary to power the future.
Koifman adds that energy waste is already an issue today.
“Wasting natural resources and pollution are the toughest problems of the global community,” he explains.
“The world economy and the economy of every country is based not only on what is produced but what is wasted.”
Though smart solutions will help tackle the problem of the roughly 40% of energy that is wasted through “dumb” systems, Koifman said, they also create an opening for governments, terrorists and hackers to fell critical systems.
“We’ve already stood up to cyber attacks,” notes the IEC’s Balmas.
The solution going forward, he added, would require an integrated, holistic approach, and strong coordination between the government, citizens and private sector.
The writer was a guest of the conference.