Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Research tries to prevent the hacking of smart power grids

A reliable power supply is the key to any country’s economic growth and social welfare. We all need electricity, to power industry and business, run hospitals, and give residents the quality of life they expect. But as our electricity grids become more complex, they also become more vulnerable.

To this end, scientists at the Masdar Institute are looking at ways of ensuring that tomorrow’s “smart” power grids remain secure.

Modern smart grids use digital technology with two-way communication to deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers in a way that saves energy, reduces cost and increases reliability and transparency.

They are adaptive, self-healing, predictive, and proactive – and crucial for using renewable energy sources for electricity supply. And just like our computers need to be made secure from power trips and hackers, so too do smart grids.

We are working to develop an integrated framework for keeping those systems secure while ensuring that information about electricity customer’s use of power remains private.

It will include forensic tools to identify, preserve, recover and analyse information about the security of a smart grid – and about any attacks on it.

To get to a position where this is possible, we will first identify and classify the main threats and vulnerabilities of smart grids, using a technique called the security quality requirements engineering method, developed at Carnegie Mellon University in the US.

The result is a model, based on a standard smart grid set-up, of how and where the grid could be vulnerable to attack or failure, and what the effects of such an event – at the grid control centre, for example, or the smart meters – would be.

That model helps give us a better understanding of the various components’ and connections’ weaknesses.

And that in turn will give those designing, building and operating smart grids a better idea about the potential problem areas, and how to avoid or mitigate them. It should also help work out how likely disruptions to the grid are and how damaging they will be – and therefore which should be most keenly avoided.

We are also looking at privacy within the various sections of the smart grid, exploring how data about the grid is transformed, used and saved between its different domains.

There are two key questions here – how is data kept safe as it is transferred between various sections of the grid and the people and entities using the grid, and how, why and when should data about the grid be stored, accessed and archived.

The answers to these questions involve the storing data without enough information to reconstruct anything that could infringe a user’s privacy, controlling who can access it, and defining the circumstances under which it can be accessed – and our work will attempt to address these.

With this project and others, we hope to help provide Abu Dhabi with methods and systems for the most reliable, efficient and secure energy supplies to fuel its ongoing growth in the years to come.

Dr Davor Svetinovic is an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology Department, affiliated with its Institute Centre for Smart and Sustainable Systems (iSmart).