A More Hackable Smart Grid Shouldn't Stop the Buildout

When we asked you to imagine the damage Internet viruses and worms could do to the critical infrastructure of the power grid, it wasn’t an exercise in futility — it’s already happening. This morning the Wall Street Journal reports that hacker spies from countries like China and Russia have infiltrated the power grid and set up a trail of software that might be able to set off attacks. Well, the cyberspies haven’t done any real damage yet, but the issue underscores the point that adding more computing intelligence to the power grid will inevitably make the grid more susceptible to Internet-style hacking. There’s no bones about it.

The WSJ writes: “The growing reliance of utilities on Internet-based communication has increased the vulnerability of control systems to spies and hackers, according to government reports.” As analysts and grid experts explained to us recently, transforming a largely one-way distribution network like the power grid into a two-way system creates that many more points of contact with the network. And if the power grid ends up being run by networks based on Internet Protocol, then those who might wish to do it harm have had years to develop malware tools. In addition, smart meters being installed in homes are very basic consumer electronics that hackers can easily purchase and use to learn about the accompanying communication network.

But none of these scares should stop the power grid from getting a much-needed digital makeover. A smart grid is absolutely mandatory to help the U.S. cut energy consumption and add more clean power. The issue is more that those building out the smart grid must be prepared to pay close attention to security tools, and take lessons from ways that the Internet industry has worked on combating cyber hackers. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is taking heed and has asked for input from standards bodies that work on security in the Internet, engineering, and electronics industries and will offer its recommendations on what kind of security standards a smart grid needs. The threat might make for sensational headlines, but the solution is entirely manageable.