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Friday, January 18, 2013

A Hacker Says Smart Grid Can Be Penetrated

A hacker wearing a fake beard and dark sunglasses took the stage at a computer security conference in Miami on Thursday and showed a group of about 60 security researchers how to intercept the radio communications between Silver Spring Networks, a maker of smart grid technology, and its clients, which include major utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric and Pepco Holdings.

The hacker, who goes by the moniker Atlas, stopped short of showing how to inflict damage to these systems, but the implication of his presentation was clear: If you can understand the way these systems speak to one another, the potential to hack them is very real. And, the logic continues, if you can hack these systems, then you could tinker with an oil or gas pipeline, or cause a power failure.

“I see these placed everywhere that I want them to be as a hacker,” Atlas said of Silver Spring’s wireless communications. “I see the sales getting better. I see a Titanic running full speed towards an iceberg, with the poential for a rudder that might make the turn in time.”

Silver Spring Networks, which is based in Redwood City, Calif., makes the hardware and software that utilities use to connect electric meters in a digital grid. Atlas said he zeroed in on the company because he questioned Silver Spring’s security “buzzwords.” On its Web site, Silver Spring says it ensures that “only authorized personnel can access these devices,” provides encryption and claims to protect its data with hashing, or scrambling, functions.

Atlas said he was able to intercept Silver Spring’s radio frequency communications, in part, by examining publicly available patents and user manuals.

Silver Spring Networks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although Atlas did not think an attack on the smart grid was imminent, he expressed concern that unless the systems were tested now, “10 years down the road they will be a real problem.”

“We are at a time in great need of vig! ilance,” he added.