A New Threat to the Power Grid: the Internet of Things

   08.20.18

A New Threat to the Power Grid: the Internet of Things

From my old digs at Ars Technica comes word of a threat to the power grid that I hadn’t heard of before. Specifically, all these wi-fi enabled devices that are plugged into it could theoretically be hijacked by hackers and dialed all the way up, so that the sudden spike in load brings down the grid.

And it’s not just that the appliances could bring down the grid, but they could make it much harder to bring it back up by actively and intelligently working against efforts to get it back online:

In the event of a blackout, a MaDIoT attack could severely impede attempts to bring power back on line. Utilities typically isolate areas of the grid to bring power back during a “black start.” They do this because they don’t know what demand will be when they throw the switch, and they want to prevent frequency instability while power is restored. An attacker could use the MaDIoT attack to create spikes in demand in each region, throwing off power frequency and causing systems to trip again, extending the blackout. About 100 to 200 “bots” controlling appliances per megawatt of grid capacity could disrupt a grid restart.

All of this is dependent on high-wattage appliances becoming connected and vulnerable. But many of these appliances are now arriving on the market with connectivity built in or are being connected through home-automation hubs like Nest. So, as Soltan said in his presentation, the time to start figuring out how to counter such attacks is now.

So it’s not just hacking into utilities and infrastructure that gives our adversaries the ability turn off our lights, but the incredibly insecure, wi-fi connected appliances that could do us in, as well.

In light of this new attack vector, there should be some sort of public guidance to the effect that if the grid goes down over a widespread area and it’s not obviously weather related, unplug your router until it comes back up and has been back up for a few hours.

We’re less than 100 years into the grand experiment that is complete and total dependence on the power grid for every aspect of our lives — the blink of an eye on the scale of human history. It’s a wonder we haven’t been seriously burned by it, yet.

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