Infrastructure: New playground for cyber attacks

As renewable energy technology and electricity infrastructure advance, planners must be cautious.

cyber hack virus hacking 370 (photo credit: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
cyber hack virus hacking 370
(photo credit: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
As innovators attempt to increase energy efficiency and accessibility by interconnecting utilities and their endpoints to virtual smart grids, consumers and producers alike will increasingly face the threat of cyber security’s ultimate intruder – the professional hacker.
Smart grids – electricity grids that provide real-time digital access to consumption behaviors and optimize electricity distribution – may create a cleaner environment, increase energy efficiency and save significant amounts of money, according to industry professionals. However, these information and communications technology (ICT) systems also open up a region’s – or country’s – utilities to the malicious efforts of those looking to penetrate such a system.
Experts discussed smart grids, smart cities and solutions for potentially grave cyber security threats in several sessions last week during the three-day Eilat-Eilot Fifth International Renewable Energy Conference and Exhibition.
Getting smart grids off the ground is now becoming critical in order to manage all of the renewable energy programs in development throughout the world, said Per-Olof Granstrom, secretarygeneral of the Brussels-based European Distribution System Operators for Smart Grids.
By launching smart grids, both producers and consumers will be able to have open data interfaces and storage mechanisms that they can manage easily, he explained.
“We have so much renewable energy distributed,” Granstrom said. “We really need something to take care of it.”
In what could be described as a microcosm of smart grids, smart metering – electricity metering that communicates with customers digitally – is beginning to roll out all over the European Union, according to Granstrom.
In India, the country with the fourth-largest power system in the world, energy professionals are working to get smart grids declared as a national mission, said Reji Kumar Pillai, president of the India Smart Grid Forum. Deploying smart grids throughout the country will also be a mode of leveraging new technologies that can serve to power that grid with clean energy, he said.
At a global level, the concept of smart grids has become a powerful agent of environmental policy because they can enable reliable integration of electricity sources as well as increase energy efficiency, added Paddy Turnbull, chairman of the Global Smart Grid Federation and growth strategy leader for GE Digital Energy.
Implementing smart grids will also create a wealth of new jobs and bring economic growth to many countries around the world, Turnbull explained.
“We’re facing an unprecedented scope of change,” he said.
Daniel Jammer, chairman of the Nation-E energy storage firm, is aiming to make his energy storage technology and communication system an integral part of this change – and has already formed partnerships to pilot his technology in the Netanya Municipality and with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Jammer’s lithium-ion battery storage system aims to allow individuals to produce renewable energy on-site and to store the unused surplus, with the possibility of using the electricity themselves or selling it back to the grid.
An ICT system ideally integrated with a larger smart grid would allow the storage battery to communicate with the grid and with any other batteries operating on the same network, in order to see where electricity is needed and when, explained Jammer.
“The energy world is basically on the way to getting revolutionized,” he said. “You need to have very precise technology to conquer the world today.”
Employing renewables is the right direction, but thus far people have largely taken “the wrong approach” and have failed to plan their electricity networks in a holistic, easily monitored and efficient fashion, Jammer said. At this point, in many cities, if the electricity system was to fail for more than 24 hours, the water supply would fall prey to contamination and there would be a wide range of other disastrous effects.
Regardless of whether the right approach has been taken toward managing renewables thus far, in terms of energy efficiency and conservation, experts see a reason for optimism.
“Our economies are growing but we’re using less electricity,” said Prof. Ray Wills of Duda & Wills Consulting, who also serves as chief adviser at the Sustainable Energy Association of Australia.
In 2000 and 2001 across the globe, sweeping changes in energy efficiency policy began; electricity consumption globally peaked in the year 2007, according to Wills.
“Electricity demand is falling also because the appliances we are using for the first time in electricity consumption are using less electricity than those that we’ve replaced them with,” he said.
An iPad 3, for example, uses much less electricity than a laptop, which uses much less than a desktop – facts that Wills said make him optimistic about ongoing changes. Even the United States military troop carriers are beginning to use diesel-electric hybrid models, he added.
“The US Defense Department is the single largest user of energy in the world,” he said, noting that the department consumes $25 billion worth of energy per year. “The largest purchasers of electricity in the world are saying, ‘We want energy-efficient appliances.’” These new behavioral patterns, this turn to efficient, green ways of thinking – “all of this has to impact the way we design our cities,” he stressed.
Broadening the sense of smart grids are smart cities, a broadly defined term that describes cities with “smart” environmental policies and energy infrastructure combined with advanced information and communication technology.
Integral to creating smart cities is the ability to interconnect data systems and elaborate on this information in order to improve quality of life, explained Dani Schaumann of the Intesa Sanpaolo Bank in Italy.
A number of Italian cities are already implementing ideas that could become segments of future smart cities, he said. In Milan, a dismissed area is being redeveloped into an experimental platform to introduce smart city concepts to the population, while the city Udine has created a virtual platform for communicating with the municipality on various issues. Florence now features interactive bus stops, and the city of Parma employs pedestrian crosswalks that are illuminated when a person crosses the street at night, said Schaumann.
Milan is already planning to host a Milano Expo 2015, which will feature the digital smart city from all angles of communication, environmental protection and sustainability, he added.
While not quite a smart city yet, the city of Akron, Ohio, takes pains to remain energy-efficient and even creates a “green-print” of every bit of property under its jurisdiction, according to Mayor Donald Plusquellic, who has been leading the 300,000-resident city for 26 years.
“I didn’t see a city that is so open to implement innovation based on the public infrastructure,” said Booky Oren, CEO of Global Water Technologies and the chair of the “Future of Smart Cities” session. “I think that’s the beginning of smart cities.”
Akron continues to seek all new types of technologies to add to its “working laboratories” in hopes of helping develop better cities, Plusquellic said. The city is currently developing a water technology for medium-sized cities in conjunction with the city of Netanya, and also has the number one green transportation system in the state of Ohio, according to the mayor.
“We have to be smart to be competitive and to be able to provide the best services to our citizens,” Plusquellic said.
A smart city will likewise be able to prevent and avoid blackouts, such as those that threatened many areas in New York for up to two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, explained Amichai Ben-Horin of the New York-based Constellation Energy, which handles energy demand-response issues. As a result of blackouts, businesses, financial centers and all types of services shut down for days, causing significant damage.
“We are all familiar with forced blackouts; we are familiar with the ones that are caused by a snowstorm or failures,” said Horin. “It’s a pain – and that pain can be avoided.”
End users and power utilities need to be able to be in much more constant communication, he stressed.
When ends users and their electricity companies are in real-time, transparent communication, however, they open themselves up to a dangerous world of Internet hackers, experts warn.
“There are a lot of threats on infrastructure systems and energy systems, and this has been clearly stated by the road map of the Department of Homeland Security and the US Department of Energy,” said Dr. Eitan Yudilevich, executive director of the Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation, a collaborative fund between the US Department of Energy and the Israeli Energy and Water Ministry.
While such attacks seem to undermine only the virtual world, in reality they “can be potentially damaging to physical structures” as well, said Yudilevich. If websites are already becoming targets of cyber terror attacks, more serious infrastructural targets could pose a much greater risk, he explained.
“The smart grid will bring that risk to our home,” said Nimrod Luria, chief technology officer at Q.Rity.
Today, the electricity grid is very closed and difficult to penetrate. However, when digital smart grids become available and popularized, there will be an instant entry point to multiple networks – and not only for those who wish to innocently monitor their electricity use, Luria warned. In a PowerPoint presentation, he pointed to a slide showing a list of at least 60 different entry points that could become targets for attackers of a smart grid.
“It’s not a new technology – it’s a new economy,” he said. “Hackers like new economies.”
The cyber attackers can build new exploits and malwares (malicious software) to potentially help them pay less for power supplies, and it will still be many years until the global electricity industry is prepared to deal with such threats, according to Luria.
Not only will communication occur from control center to field site in smart grids, but peer-to-peer interactions will also occur among the field sites, making the communications management all the more complicated, added Ilan Barda, CEO of ICT group RADiFlow. His company is currently working on a smart grid pilot application for a utility in Spain, implementing and testing various encryption mechanisms and firewalls, he explained.
“We are also going to have a network which is going to control and build and affect every single device on this network in parallel to the electricity system,” said Yuval Shchory, who works in security solutions at Cisco.
In a smart grid, even a power outlet in a residential home will act as a network device that can talk to the local electricity company, Shchory explained.
“Technology is playing a major role here because it’s not only the electricity technology; it’s the Internet Protocol (IP) technology,” he said. “You’re going to have a network that talks back and forth with everything on the network.”
And within this network will be a lot of money, available digitally.
“We don’t just deal with hackers whose hobby it is to take down networks. It’s a professional, a real profession,” he said.
What is perhaps even more terrifying to those planning smart grids than those interested in stealing money by hacking through the networks, are those interested in generating terror through their cyber work.
“It’s not just a hacker – it can be states,” said Boaz Landsberger, head of security at Israel Electric Corporation.
Anyone from crime organizations to competitors to hostile countries may be interested in penetrating these networks, which may have billions of end points and sensitive privacy components, he explained. Experts must continue to develop efficient monitoring systems that will be able to know how the network and its end points look when they behave normally, as well as catch any deviations from this norm, Landsberger said.
Itzik Ben-Israel, director of the National Council for Research and Development, stressed that due to Israel’s very sensitive security situation and its existence as an energy island, smart grids may at the moment be more practical for a place like Europe.
There, electricity can potentially flow through and be shared by many contiguous countries that will be inherently less vulnerable because of their cooperative neighborhood, he explained.
“If we were not an island and we could have a smart grid, this could increase, in a way, our immunity, our resilience to attacks like this. But this is not realistic in the current situation,” Ben-Israel said. “Therefore, we should do whatever we can do to protect our power production.”