Utilities face smart meter hacking threat

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Electric utilities are converting traditional electric meters to modern, remotely-readable smart meters - but some may be facing a new twist on electricity theft: hacking smart meters.

The term "smart meters" encompasses a variety of devices used by electric utilities to measure how much electric energy their customers consume.  In general, smart meters can eliminate the need for a meter reader to physically visit the customer's premises, relying instead on wireless radio frequency communication to tell the central office about the customer's consumption.  Many smart meters can also allow real-time tracking of customers' use of electricity, a precursor to time-of-use rates and other "smart grid" applications.  Federal and state regulators promote their installation, citing improved customer service, enhanced storm restoration efforts, and reduced costs for both ratepayers and utilities.

Cybersecurity blog KrebsOnSecurity has released part of a document that appears to be a bulletin by the Federal Bureau of Investigation noting a new threat: hacking smart meters.  According to the blog, a Puerto Rican utility may have lost "hundreds of millions of dollars annually" as a result of smart meter hacking.  Apparently some smart meter models are relatively vulnerable to being reprogrammed (or simply subverted) such that they underreport how much electricity the consumer is using.

Theft of electricity is not new, as people have likely attempted to bypass utility meters since their inception in the 19th century.  As society and the electric power industry have become increasingly digital, it may be inevitable that this trend would continue.  As utilities and regulators respond to the new threat, cybersecurity may play an important and increasing role.

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