Cleantech Market Intelligence
We hacked the smart meter! Tell the world!
Why are we all so excited about the Smart Grids anyway? Potential. Smart Grids hold potential to save consumers money on their energy bill. To save utilities capital expenditure for new generation. To guarantee energy independence for our nation – for your nation, wherever you are. To do more with less energy. Some believe that Smart Grids will save the earth. There is just so much potential!
Bear Bryant once said, “Potential means you ain’t done it yet.” Others heard him say, “Potential is what gets you fired.”
Where is that more true than Smart Grids? We certainly ain’t done it yet and several jobs – and political careers – are being risked in its name. So it may be worth a diversion from our day-to-day worries to consider what could prevent our realizing Smart Grids’ potential.
Here’s one possibility: Fear. And who’s afraid? Ratepayers. Ratepayers that elect politicians.
Anything that sows fear into the hearts of ratepayers – consumers – can make its way back to elected representatives. Those politicians, wishing to remain in office, will oblige their constituents and work to retard Smart Grid deployment. We know that this can happen. Already we have seen several Smart Grid deployments stalled by the outcry over increased energy bills.
Now consider another fear: terrorism. The press reports regularly that smart meters have been hacked. Perhaps the first major story was when a well-known security research firm showed us in 2009 that a smart meter could be successfully hacked.
But they didn’t really show us that a smart meter could be hacked. We already knew that. That any IT device can be hacked is a given – it’s part of our daily lives. Their research showed us how. Full credit for that – it’s valuable research that can only lead to better security. Better security because the threats are better understood, and better security because some meter manufacturers are blasted out of their complacency. That’s okay. This is extremely important work that needs to be done.
What’s not okay is going on national television with a sensational story that smart meters have been hacked. Of course they have. If you have sold 100,000 units of hardware or software and it has not been hacked, there are two plausible explanations:
• It cannot be hacked because it doesn’t do anything
• It actually has been hacked but you haven’t discovered the hack
So what is it to go on TV and tell an uninformed public that doesn’t understand IT that their electric meters can be hacked? How about sensationalism? Or sowing fear? Is all this negative publicity for smart metering bad? Yes.
The public already fears smart meters, after stories in several states of electricity bills suddenly doubling when smart meters were installed. The explanations often turn out to be pedestrian: “Your electricity bill doubled because your old meter was rusted out and not accurately recording your consumption.” But no matter the explanation, mainstream media have been quick to pick up on the thread: Computer geeks botch another technology roll-out; don’t understand the real world, etc.
For sure there have been errors in smart metering roll-outs. Regardless, consumers fear smart meters, and the media seem content to stoke those fears. So what is the need to layer fear of terrorism on top of that? The typical consumer has no idea what a cyber-attack is, let alone whether a worm is more likely to propagate in an RF mesh, an RF star, a PLC network, or none of the above.
What if instead we considered that we are still in the deployment phase – admit that there will be problems, find them through sometimes brilliant research, and then fix them? That’s not to say that we should cover up any bad news. Where there are problems they must be aggressively communicated to the right people and quickly remedied. But telling the general public that as an industry we haven’t got our act together – that only sows more fear in consumers’ hearts. Who will then write their elected representatives, and repeat the cycle we’ve already seen once with billing issues. So why not go easy on the sensational stories for a while?
Sad to say about the Cyber Security world: we’ve chosen a profession where the true heroes are anonymous.