Automated Program at University of British Columbia Boosts Security of Smart Meters and Smart Grid

The increased use of smart electricity meters has allowed energy utility companies to more efficiently track energy use and allocate energy production – and end users to better manage their home energy usage – but concerns of potential hacking have raised cybersecurity issues. Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have developed an automated program aimed at improving the security of smart meters and boosting security in the smart grid.

The program addresses smart meters’ vulnerability to software-interference attacks where the attacker physically accesses the meter and modifies its communication interfaces or reboots it. Hacked meters can even cause house fires and explosions or widespread blackouts. They can be relatively easily accessed by attackers, so each smart meter must be quite hack-proof and resilient in the field.

“Smart meters are critical components of the smart grid, sometimes called the Internet of Things, with more than 588 million units projected to be installed worldwide by 2022,” said cybersecurity researcher, Karthik Pattabiraman, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UBC. “In a single household you can have multiple smart devices connected to electricity through a smart meter. If someone took over that meter, they could deactivate your alarm system, see how much energy you’re using, or can rack up your bill. In 2009, to cite one real-life example, a massive hack of smart meters in Puerto Rico led to widespread power thefts and numerous fraudulent bills.”

The researchers say vendors can use the findings to test their designs before they are manufactured.

“Our findings can be applied to other kinds of devices connected to a smart grid as well, and that’s important because our homes and offices are increasingly more interconnected through our devices,” said Pattabiraman.