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back to article Smart meters pose hacker kill-switch risk, warn boffins

A leading computer scientist has warned of the security risks of using smart meters in controlling utility supplies. A programme is underway to replace Britain’s 47 million meters with smart meters that can be turned off remotely. Utilities welcome the move because it will greatly simplify the process of collecting meter reading …

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In Case of Emergency...

A pair of very insulated and thick jump leads to bypass the hacked component. If the Safety Elf turns up, hand him one end of each lead while you go to remove the other ends...

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FAIL

Firmware updates?

The idea of firmware updates for smart meters is scary, let alone the thought of terrorists turning them off remotely. If the power company manages to brick several thousand meters while rolling out an update, how long will it take them to fix each one?

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@Firmware updates

Since there are refund systems in place to compensate the end user in cases of electricity failure, I imagine they will be very VERY careful doing upgrades, since they will get a big bill if it all goes wrong. Won't stop it happening, or them trying to get out of paying if it does though.

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Hardware bypass

If the meter were to hold the supply closed, rather than open, then bricking them would still mean you get your 'leccy until they fix your meter. They wouldn't lose much (aside from the cost of fixing the meter) since they could guess your usage (far more accurately than before).

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Anonymous Coward

It sounds Daily Mail alarmist..

.. but to be honest, the fella has got a point. It'd be an extremely desirable system to hack and as we know in the PC vs Mac vs Linux wars, your system's only secure if no-one's really interested in hacking it.

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Big Brother

BF FB

Big Fat Ferrite Bead.

Should keep *all* nosey packets where they belong...

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Anonymous Coward

I always thought that..

..part of the reason utility companies haven't switched to remote reading of meters (even using local bluetooth signals), even though it's been feasible for years is that they want their readers to take a look at your meter and check that you've not been tampering with it.

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Jobs Horns

simply turning off ? ... nahhh

The trick would be to quickly turn on and off the power 10 or 20 times in a row before cutting it.

Not only you deprieve ppl from electricity, but most of their old (and not so old) hardware wil probably die in the process...and they'll never know about it until power is restored.

(/me turns in his sleep and dreams 'My name is Bofh, James Bofh')

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Even worse

Pulse lots of them simultaneously. You take out the supply hardware as well.

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Alert

Daily Wail story

A Pound to a pinch of shit that this is in the Daily Wail within 3 days.

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Joke

Why 3 days ?

1) to add the immigrant angle

2) to add the house prices angle

3) to add the threat to middle classes angle.

So it'll read something like :

SMART METER HACK FEAR AS MIDDLE ENGLAND RISKS RISE IN IMMIGRATION AND FALL IN HOUSE PRICES

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Happy

You missed one

4) Add a cause of cancer.

IMMIGRANT SMART METER HACKERS CAUSE FALL IN HOUSE PRICES AND CANCER - OFFICIAL!

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soft/high value targets

Electricity transmission lines, "increasingly well-guarded"? Shurely shome mishtake; it's impossible to guard thousands of miles of cross-country high-tension lines. It's always been a mystery to me that the IRA never realised that with a dozen well-chosen bombs the size of a packet of fags on London-bound electricity generation lines they could cause massive disruption with virtually zero risk of detection or bad publicity resulting from civilian casualties.

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Grenade

Believe it or not ...

energy supplies (in the 80s, certainly, when I worked for British Gas) were better guarded than people realised.

And to respond to your point, the IRA *did* realise the potential of economic disruption. Late in the day, true. But it was their targeting of Canary Wharf in 1992 which forced the UK to start negotiating with them. Because the IRA demonstrated they could plant lots of small - almost harmless bombs, and cripple the city to the tunes of billions of pounds. Something people should bear in mind when they discuss anti terrorist policies. Kill 3,000 people, and you get nowhere. Threaten a few peoples fortunes, and you have the keys to the kingdom.

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Mobile networks

Been involved in a couple projects around these smart meters. they use mobile networks for control. If anything dodgy happens just unplug the external antenna :)

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letters and/or digits

While I want to agree with you (on the remove the antenna bit) it might be a bit late once the switch has been thrown to off and the only way to turn it back on again is via the (now disconnected) antenna (local methods using service manual hacks notwithstanding).

Also I'm betting that if the antenna has to be external like that, and cannot be integrated to reduce tampering, they will put a compression seal on the connection.

If my smart meter gets borked like that I don't think I'll bother removing the antenna connection. If they don't sort it within an hour I'll be removing the compression seal on the master fuse and bypassing the little bugger all together!*

[*Exactly what I'll use to route a 250V 200A domestic supply inc night storage heaters around the borked meter I don't quite know - TBD at the time. Not sure the standard rated 'chocolate block' will fare that well.....]

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Hmm...

I suspect that you're talking about different smart meters - I read (I think here) that the network which the meters use will be supplied by BT Redcare, which suggests it'll be wired.

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TWB

Call me naive...

But why could'nt the network for the meters be private and completely isolated ie. there is NO connection to any other network of any sort? (yes there would still be safe ways of getting meter readings to customers emails etc)

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You're naive

Because it's either hooked up to the control servers via the power-lines (a connection to which is available in every house) or via a wireless network of some kind (which is therefore available everywhere). How exactly do you propose isolating this network?

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Paris Hilton

You're naïve

Would you care to explain how you intend to isolate a network that has a node in every single house/building in the country.

All it takes is someone with a scalpel, crocodile clips, big balls and the correct programming nouse to be able to connect to the network (ie the power lines) and all hell breaks loose. And of course, they can do it from the comfort of their own home.

Of course, if I've misunderstood the technology and it instead uses RF or GSM signalling, it is a similar exercise, but conducted inside the 'smart meter' itself - you're just hacking at a different level.

Of course, I'm sure they'll come up with a way to foil such hacking attempts, such as by placing "warranty void if seal broken" stickers on it, using security screws or labelling both sides with "open other end first"

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Anonymous Coward

Wireless?

Wireless, but not "wireless" in it's currently accepted common usage, but wireless in terms of the mobile phone network.

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Yawn! Generic alarmism, applicable to everything

Everything has risks. The more interconnected everything gets the greater the potential for harm. However this guy has not managed to quantify the risk, or the downside, so is quite incapable of making any sort of judgement about whether the risk outweighs the benefits.

Ignore.

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Grenade

Re: Electricity transmission lines, "increasingly well-guarded"?

Transmission lines, you have a point. But is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that new substations/switchyards are much more "indoors" than they used to be. One new one in CB4 for a new housing estate has a roof and complete screen walls; another decades old in an ordinary side street has gained high sloping barriers all around - within the chainlink perimeter - that reminds me of nothing more than a N.I lookout post during the troubles. Both are now physically much harder to both get into, and to throw anything into, or pour a flammable liquid into. Hardened against casual infrastructure attack, if you ask me.

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Black Helicopters

"casual" attack

that's the secret of security. You can never eliminate 100% of threats. But for 20% of the effort, you can eliminate 80%.

I wonder if Streetview shows these substations, or if they have been removed ?

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Casual Infrastructure Attack

So the local yobs?

Always thought it made the world a better place every time one of those idiots got fried in a substation, but hey!

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Stop

Hardly a new vuln...

...given that meter cabinets are invariably externally accessible on new build properties. A utility key to open up the cabinet and turn the existing meter off costs all of a couple of quid. It seems most people these days lack both the key and practical wherewithal to turn it back on again.

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Thinking too small, man.

Sure, but you still have to go there to do that, and you can't use that to, say, remotely overcharge some poor bastard, steal somebody's credentials and abuse them for free power, or systematically shut off electrical service to most of a city. It's harder to get caught and standing beside your meter with a loaded rifle will not protect you in the least.

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Secured sub stations

I suspect the security of sub stations has more to do with the increase in the price of copper than with any terrorism threats

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Supply side problem

If the hackers managed to turn off a sizeable proportion of a nations supply in a short space of time. The power stations will still be pumping out megawatt of electricity, all that energy has to go somewhere. Once they sorted the meters out it would be quite a quite a while before people go their supply restored

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Terminator

security risks of smart meters ?

> Ross Anderson, professor in security engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, warns that the move to smart metering introduces a "strategic vulnerability" that hackers might conceivable be exploit to remotely switch off elements on the gas or electricity supply grid ..

Similarly to SCADA units, wouldn't it be a good idea to put these devices on a separate network from the `hackers', using embedded hardware running SecIP/VPN etc. Don't tell me how it can't be done -tell me how it can be !

http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/gen-comm/info-notices/2003/in200314.pdf

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Not worth it.

Or don't, and just knock off all this smart meter business. Even if you came up with an implementation that is secure by computer network standards, you've still introduced a massive risk to the power grid for...what?

It will still be a massive risk because the meters are still on a network. Anybody who does manage to find a hole in this hypothetical supposedly secure network and get in--and somebody will, because somebody /always/ does, encrypted or not, or else OpenSSH updates wouldn't come out nearly so often--will be more dangerous to the power grid than a truckload of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel.

However good the implementation, that situation is still possible, and there is nothing anybody can do to make it impossible--or even as difficult as more traditional attacks against infrastructure. Besides, how do you go about putting it on a "separate network from the hackers" when anybody with a utility meter in his yard, a set of electrician's snips, and some alligator clips can take a whack at it? Why make it possible in the first place? What's to be gained that's worth that risk?

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Stop

So a "computer expert"...

...has finally 'echoed' (or re-worded) the opinion that the readers of this rag have been spouting for the last 18 months??

FFS, we are all doomed.....

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Happy

@Shady

...has finally 'echoed' (or re-worded) the opinion that the readers of this rag have been spouting for the last 18 months??

I think you'll find his work was one of the contributions to *start* the debate in the first place.

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How many?

"The rollout of an estimated 47 million smart meters to each of the UK's 26 million homes"

I thought two meters in my house was plenty, and now I'm going to have 47 million installed? Dunno where they'll fit....

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Happy

Priceless!

You owe me a keyboard!

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Happy

Dammit

Thought I would be first to post that

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We have one

In Toronto they use them to charge more during peak times (more or less all day) and cheaper over night and weekends.

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8 Billion

"Utilities welcome the move because it will greatly simplify the process of collecting meter reading and controlling supply at times of high demand. As an added bonus the technology also makes it easier to switch subscribers to new (higher) tariffs if they persistently fail to pay their bill on time."

And that is really 8 billion pounds worth of benefit?

And what does "controlling supply at times of high demand" mean? I guess it means cut me off and not the hospital, I hope I get a months refund every time they do that to me.

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Err...

1) You've already reported this.

2) Isn't the whole point of this sort of meter that they are going to be on a private network isolated from any publicly available networks?

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Stop

Gary McKinnon

Guess that's what Nasa thought until Gary McKinnon came along and whoops...

Don't tell Gary that there's UFO evidence in the meters....

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Isolated?

Isolated 'til Joe Hacker brings a shovel, a wire stripper, and a laptop, sure.

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Generic title

@Captain Thyratron - The network would be encrypted, even if you can get connected to the network, and it's really not that simple stripping a live 3phase cable which is laid in the ground (just look at the amount of dead copper thives) you aren't going to be able to read or write data to the network. In the highly unlikely event that someone did crack the encryption, go undetected connecting to the mains cabling, not get killed in doing so and manage to switch off some meters, the maximum they'd be able to switch off would be the amount of homes connected to the local sub station. Grid monitoring would pick this up and they'd send someone out to fix it.

@Kevin - NASA's systems that were 'hacked' by Gary McKinnon were public network attached non-passworded systems, there is no paralell here.

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No mention of remote power off?

Why is it whenever I read about power companies being able to "remotely turn the power off during times of high demand" is it always a throw away line and never addressed - there's not even another comment about it!*

We're in the 21st Centuary, times should be moving forwards not backwards to days of rolling blackouts.

So a power company has the choice of investing the money I pay each month in new power generating equipment (my preference is nuclear but I understand we need a balanced mixture for ramping and what-have-you) or they can not spend any money, make their profit margins look good and then when they're in the shit simply turn my leccy off and charge me more when I'm allowed to have it switched on as it's scarce - which decision do you expect the money grabbing bastards to take?

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Power off...

The power off at times of high demand thing is that the meters will be able to communicate with high energy devices in the home (subject to your purchasing compatible devices and subject to you agreeing with the leccy company that they can switch them for you.) The idea being that if you've got an air conditioner or fridge etc, which can be delayed switching on for five or ten minutes, it doesn't really do any harm to the fridge/air con and saves having to fire up an entire generating set, which is time consuming and expensive. In return you get a reduction in your bill.

What it isn't is forcing you to have your entire supply switched on and off at the behest of the energy company whenever they feel like it.

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Grenade

energy is not an unlimited resource

so rationing is essential.

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WTF?

But...

... it has been an *effectively* unlimited resource until now,** and there is no reason it shouldn't remain so, except that power companies can leverage "shortages" to make obscene profits. Power generation and supply should be in the hands of governments, not companies.

** I am, of course, talking about locally - the universe, if it is infinite, has infinite energy. If it isn't, it doesn't really matter no, and we can treat it as if it is.

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Flame

Reduction in bill?

When does that ever happen with our privatised utilities?

What's more likely to happen is your bill stays the same, or increases to pay for dumb meter rollout and windmills. Standard tariff gives the utility (or hacker) the kill-switch ability and if you want a reliable supply, you have to pay a more expensive tariff. And for 'times of high demand', substitute 'in times of low wind'. I'm also betting utilities will accept zero liability for any damage to devices caused by remote cycling.

But the existing network already has some vulnerability to hacking or fraud, eg the good'ol radio teleswitches.

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Anonymous Coward

Shirly

The meters will be given an ip address or similar to identify it and allow it to be controlled remotely (they sure as hell wont be using the customers own connection) , having now commented the reg has my ip address...can they use that to find my physical address without breaking into the ISP and going over their records? No. So how is a power line hacker or terrorist going to be able to identify the IP of the meter and the specific physical location they want to interact with? Bomb by the transformer makes more sense to me consider the "increasingly secure" power distribution systems security only goes as far as a bigger padlock on the wooden fence surrounding the transformer.

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Flame

Chaos by randomness

Sure if someone want's to hit a specific target it will be harder... but why not just release a virus that just randomly buggers people up? One minute takes number 42 down, then takes out a hospital, someone 300 miles away, fire station, etc... basically do a mass denial of service attack to the UK, US or wherever.

Nothing is impossbile, somethings are just improbable..

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FAIL

You don't have to identify it

You don't necessarily have to identify *whose* meter you're just about to turn off. Just send the Ping of Doom™ anyway and see which house goes dark.

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