The ugly face of Smart Grid

Lights went out in most of Turkey on March 31st, 2015. Was it a technical glitch or was the grid hacked?

Blackouts are not so rare and they go back in the past. I still remember the clamour generated by the one suffered by New York most 40 years ago (July 13-14, 1977). And we have had several others, Italy included.

The faults were different each time, an unexpected overload as consequence of a failure somewhere in the grid, a loss of control in rebalancing the load, a major failure in a power line and so on.

Hence there should be no surprise that three days ago, on March 31st, 2015, a major blackout hit Turkey leading to the shut down of the Istanbul underground, including the train link between Europe and Asia, to the halt of production in many manufacturing plants and huge delays in air traffic (10 radar stations out of 16 blacked out).

What took my attention was the fact that one of the possible explanation being investigated by the Turkish Government, this time, was a hacking attack on the grid.  we made the grid smarter thanks to computers but this has also weakened it, exposing it to potential attacks.

I do not know, at the time I am writing this, if indeed the blackout was the consequence of a hacking or not. However, from my point of view this is irrelevant. What is relevant is that such a possibility is being considered. There was nothing like that back in 1977.

We are now fully dependent on the availability of cheap, usable energy and the lack of it affects us all, disrupting not just the production engine of a Country but the normal everyday life of its citizens. 

A Smart Grid, we are told, can make sure that unexpected failures can be contained, preventing an avalanche leading to an extensive black out. And yet, the very fact that we have a Smart Grid (which implies computers, software and communication links) can open th door to hacking attacks leading to even more disruptive and extended (in space and time) black outs.

Security in Smart Grid is a major topic addresses in our EIT ICT Labs Smart Energy Area. I am not confident that security, in this area as in several others, will ever be solved completely and forever. It will be a never ending story, where the real goal is to stay a step ahead of the "bad guys".

Author - Roberto Saracco

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