Crap computers in a crap box: Smart-meter blackouts risk to UK
Sniff a device’s wireless, pwn a power plant, warns Brit biz
By John Leyden
Analysis You’d be forgiven for thinking this is the plot of a Saturday night BBC2 drama: hackers tinkering with smart electricity meters deliberately cut the power to whole neighbourhoods.
But, according to a UK computer security biz, weak authentication checks and a lack of other security controls on said equipment could allow just that.
Greg Jones, director at security consultancy and penetration testing firm Digital Assurance, discovered numerous shortcomings in three samples of two types of smart meters , which are installed in homes to monitor and control the use of gas and electricity. Typically, these devices are wirelessly connected to the supplier so data and upgrades can be easily transmitted over the air – some even using the mobile phone network.
A hacker could therefore crack the wireless communications between the meter and the supplier, and send his or her own mischievous messages back to base, or commands to other meters, it is claimed.
After buying the test samples through online auction sites, Jones wanted to find out what made the electronics tick. He said he discovered the protection against hardware tampering was far less stringent than that applied to comparable consumer security products, such as an Xbox game console.
“Smart meters are essentially crap computers in a crap box,” Jones claimed.
Attention in the past has predominantly focused on how power plants’ critical systems can be compromised over traditional wired computer networks.
Little consideration has been given to how they might be hacked wirelessly, it seems. The proprietary protocols used by power equipment can be intercepted and analysed using readily accessible software-defined radio (SDR*) equipment and a PC.
With up to 53 million smart meters (essentially miniature SCADA  devices) installed in 30 million homes and businesses in Blighty between 2014 and 2019, the number of potential access points on suppliers’ networks is set to increase dramatically.
The data relayed between these devices and their headquarters can be intercepted, captured, jammed or replayed using SDR equipment, providing the hacker with network-wide access to individual home meters, control stations, generating stations and transmission facilities.
Armed with nothing more than a soldering iron and some basic programming, Jones explored how smart meters can be exploited, controlled and manipulated. He found security flaws in both the design and implementation of several devices.
‘We extracted all of its passwords’
“The meter is manufactured by a significant vendor who specialises in smart metering. The specific meter is MID/Ofgem certified (can be used in the UK on the grid) and is in use in the UK and extensively abroad,” Jones explained. “This meter on which nearly all of the work has been done supports the International Electrotechnical Commission’s protocol standards and currently uses the GSM mobile phone network for wide-area network communications.”
“We extracted all of its passwords from EEPROM [programmable read-only memory chip] and can use these to communicate with other meters from the meter supplier – and the vendor, as some of these passwords are factory defaults.”
Flipping the switch to disconnect or reconnect supplies is “fairly trivial” once you have the super-user password for the device and the necessary connectivity. This could be via several means, including local connection via wired serial, or GSM to run a fake base station attack.
Exploits could include remotely disconnecting a home or office building’s power supply; something that could even be applied across an entire neighbourhood.
“Some devices do feature authentication,” Jones explained. “But it’s a mixed bag and down to the manufacturer.”
Components of the electricity grid previously relied upon their relative obscurity to protect them but this is changing with the rollout of smart meters. Defences need to be built into the system, according to Jones.
“The only way of protecting a wireless device from an SDR attack at present is to ensure that it has been designed, configured and deployed to resist over-the-air attacks. Very few vendors of such equipment will give this type of assurance, so independent testing is currently the only option until the industry applies itself to developing a solution. Understanding exactly what radio systems have been deployed and ensuring adequate risk assessments have been conducted is an essential first step,” he explained.
Vulnerabilities that could switch off the electricity supply
Jones gave further details on how these attacks might be executed and the ramifications for utility providers during a presentation, entitled SCADA, smart meters and enterprise control systems: The next threat, at Infosecurity Europe 2013.
Ross Anderson, professor in security engineering at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, warned as far back as 2011 that smart metering would introduce a “strategic vulnerability” that might be exploited by hackers to remotely switch off elements of the gas or electricity supply grid. Software errors introduced during an update also pose a risk.
Security researchers at IOActive previously highlighted  (PDF, slide deck) flaws in poor authentication, lack of encryption and inadequate authorisation in smart meters, during a research project that looked at early rollouts in the US and Europe.
Smart meters introduce two-way communication between a meter and the central system of a utility, which is absent from older analogue meters. The devices feature sensors so they can monitor and report on the quality of gas and electricity supply, as well as recording unit consumption for billing purposes.
Utilities want to deploy smart meters because the technology will automate meter reading, as well as creating tools to make it easier to control supply at times of high demand. The kit also makes it easier to switch subscribers to higher tariffs in cases where they fail to pay their bills on time.
Encouraged by the government, utilities are planning to roll smart energy meters out to every home in UK by 2019. Mass rollout is due to kick up a gear starting from next year.
In a survey of 1,000 UK consumers, sponsored by infosec firm TripWire, 61.2 per cent said that smart meters would encourage them to use less electricity, and 28.4 per cent voiced the opinion that it would make their electricity bill cheaper. However, 26.8 per cent said the technology would only be used by electricity suppliers as a marketing tool. One in 10 respondents (10.60 per cent) said the devices will capture too much of their personal information.
Similarly, 8.9 per cent of respondents expressed fears that smart meters would be vulnerable to hacking. Tim Erlin, director, product management, security and IT risk strategist at Tripwire, said concerns that the roll-out of smart meter technology, exposing personally identifiable information and requiring additional security and privacy protection, was arguably under-represented in the survey.
A separate poll of 3,000 British consumers, carried out by YouGov for mobile operator O2, discovered that 63 per cent of respondents did not know what a smart meter was. When the concept was explained, respondents felt that greater visibility and control of energy usage in the home (77 per cent) and the introduction of fair pricing via accurate billing (73 per cent) were the top two reasons to favour a smart meter. ®
* SDR works by capturing radio frequency signals using a high-speed analogue-to-digital converter enabling the direct digitisation of the radio frequency signal. This can then be analysed by a digital signal processor before being converted into output data stream. The user can analyse slices of spectrum, looking for carriers and modulated signals and go on to isolate the preamble and the payload of transmitted information, for instance. Alternatively they can separate out the message headers if they’re searching for data streams.
Many SDRs are available but the Universal Software Radio Peripheral  is the tool of choice as it allows both reception and transmission. When coupled with open-source software such as GNU Radio , the USRP allows the creation of advanced radio systems. This uses a USB 2.0 interface, a field-programmable gate array, high-speed ADCs and digital-to-analogue converters to generate a sampling and synthesis bandwidth one thousand times greater than that of a PC sound card. This extends the reach of the equipment and enables wideband operation.