Power outage threat posed by hackers

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Hackers could pose a significant threat to smart grid security unless the challenges are better understood and addressed, researchers have warned. A team of scientists from Michigan Technological University investigated the potential for ‘nightmare scenarios’, involving cyberattacks and highlighted the potential vulnerabilities associated with smart grid technology.

Chee-Wooi Ten, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech, commented that the fundamental problem is ‘a gap between physical equipment and intangible software’.

“Ten years ago, cybersecurity simply didn’t exist – it wasn’t talked about and it wasn’t a problem,” commented Ten. “Now with events like in Ukraine last year and malware like Stuxnet, where hackers can plan for a cyberattack that can cause larger power outages, people are starting to grasp the severity of the problem.”

He explained that advances in smart grid technology – such as smart meters; management systems for distributed energy resources – like wind and solar production; along with instrumentation systems in power plants, substations or control centres – create both improvements in monitoring and entry points for hackers. Without solid security measures, the technology can be vulnerable to attack.

Ten commented that quantitative methods should be used to prioritise cybersecurity protection to ensure power grids are operated in a more secure and safe manner. With a better understanding of the system’s weaknesses, it will be easier to be strategic and shore up security risks: “There is going to be a tremendous impact if we are negligent and fail to keep up with changes in communication infrastructure and emerging security threats,” he concluded.

The research, published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid, outlines the challenges and key strategic areas that must be tackled in the future.

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