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Guiding principles for keeping cyber security threats at bay

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Tuesday, October 09, 2012

For years utilities have been ruminating about the real and exaggerated fears regarding cyber security, but as the smart grid begins to unfold, many are taking action to defend themselves against these potential threats, no matter how theoretical  - or proven - they are.

According to Renew Grid, the cyber security landscape is growing more complex with every smart grid installation, with remote access and substation automation increasing the number of access points and potential vulnerabilities by a considerable amount. What's more, the new grid is spread across a massive geographic region, making monitoring and control of energy infrastructure assets more difficult than ever.

Still, smart grid experts are continually developing ways utilities can analyze the potential damage of such attacks, mitigate their effects or even prevent them from ever occurring in the first place. Robert Dolin, vice president and chief technology officer at Echelon Corp. and the holder of several cyber security patents, recently wrote out the top guiding principles for utilities to follow when considering cyber security in smart grid deployments.

Dolin stated that when starting out, it is crucial to assume that any security system has vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Knowing this, a plan for such a breach should be developed, which can help a utilities detect, localize and compartmentalize any attack. By doing this, utilities can lower the overall value and chance of an attack.

Second, utilities must understand and manage the attack surface, which is the pathway by which the attack travels into the system. Some threats can be easily identified, and require only light training to fix, however, these relatively easy-to-remedy attacks must be understood in full.

The more vicious attacks must be assessed by expert cryptologists using heavy computing power, making the resources for mitigating the effects of such threats fairly small. However, in the eyes of an attacker, if the risk does not pay off with a successful attack, the entire threat can be eliminated.

Rolin's third point concerned the growing need for standardized protocols, according to the news source.

"Use standard security protocols and best practices that have been applied in IT systems that have been - and continue to be - attacked. Although it may seem less secure to use publicly known access control, authentication and encryption techniques, if certain systems have been attacked (and revised when an attack was successful), it makes them generally stronger than a proprietary technique that has not been subjected to relentless attacks," he wrote.

Several instances of attacks on utilities' smart grid devices have been reported, with that number growing since 2009. That year, one intelligent electronic device was hacked that allowed the malware to be deployed throughout the entire smart grid network. Upon later assessment, it was determined that a worm had been introduced into one meter, and was eventually able to spread through 22,000 similar devices, the news source stated.

Often, meters and IEDs are protected by passwords, but the only way to ensure total security is to develop unique passwords for each IED. This can quickly bloom into thousands of different passwords, making control of such equipment a daunting process. What's more, Dolin said, IED passwords should be strong and not shared, and although this seems intuitive, it is a process that is not always implemented, which can lead to cyber security attacks.

SUBNET makes it easy for utilities to ensure cyber security with its Unified IED Access Control Security, which includes an integrated system of IED access and password management products. With SUBNET, utilities can automated the password management process for thousands of IEDs, ensuring efficient operations. 

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