According to former CIA director James Woolsey, the utility companies don’t want to think about issues like data security, so it’s up to the people working on smart grid technologies to do that. Right now, he said, they’re more concerned with adding fun new features, but it won’t be so fun if the electric grid goes down for a few days. Seventeen of the United States’ 18 pieces of critical infrastructure rely on electricity, and anything from weather to the pulse from a nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere could take it out.
In that case, Woolsey said, “You’re not headed back to the 1970s pre-web — you’re back to the 1790s pre-electric-grid.”
If you’re wondering where data fits into all of this, Woolsey said there’s a lot that’s accessible for a skilled-enough hacker. “The web was put together … by a bunch of absolutely brilliant people who … like me, were part of the ’60s flower generation,” he explained, and they assumed everyone would be buddies. However, as the Wikileaks diplomatic-tubes controversy illustrated, anyone who’s part of a network can inflict a lot of damage. You wouldn’t want someone who doesn’t have your interests in mind getting access to grid data and taking it down, Woolsey said.
Although the grid is vulnerable to the whims of mad men, Woolsey said methods such as distributed generation, co-generation and improved battery technology could help alleviate some of the threat. The less we rely on centralized transmission and generation, the less vulnerable any given point on the network is. The easier it is to hack, the easier it is to bring down the electric grid: “If the data disappears, it’s not of much use.”