It sounds sci-fi but it really isn’t. Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) announced that it has successfully demonstrated quantum cryptography, using a single photon to generate secure random numbers between devices. LANL successfully tested this quantum crypto transmitter against an electric grid test bed. (Perhaps the bigger surprise is that someone is actually developing a security solution not aimed at social networking.)
According to the press release, this marks “the first-ever demonstration of securing control data for electric grids using quantum cryptography.” That gives me a mild case of heartburn: cryptography is one method of protecting data, but to say that any cryptography on its own secures data is to overstate the accomplishment. But this is genuine innovation – rare as hen’s teeth in grid cyber security – so let’s press on.
If this were just another way to encrypt data, I might say, “Neat!” and stop there. But the most nearly intractable problem in securing smart grids is protecting legacy devices that sit side-by-side with modern IP- and Bluetooth-enabled devices. The cryptographic transmitter, invented by LANL and called a QKarD, is tiny by comparison with other encryption devices and introduces line latency well within tolerances for a control network. Testing was done on a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) length of optical fiber.
New Intelligence Required
As Los Alamos points out, integrating renewable energy supplies into grids requires new techniques, and new telecommunications. Most grids were built for the steady, predictable inputs from fossil-fired generation. Adding variable rate inputs such as solar or wind requires new intelligence and new controls. Those new controls assume that data received from the field is reliable and from a trusted source.
Cryptography can fulfill both of those functions. While enterprise IT shops rely upon cryptography first and foremost for confidentiality, data integrity is more important for control networks. Cryptography is not by itself a total security solution, but its role in preserving useful and accurate data is key. LANL’s solution may move the industry one step closer to a painless way to protect all that data.
A recurring theme from my 3 years of research is that there is precious little innovation in cyber security. Along with quantum cryptography, I have recently seen promising new approaches for network anomaly detection, network cleansing, and device ID protection, among other things.
Perhaps the tide is finally turning.
Tags: Research & Development, Smart Grid Security, Smart Utilities Practice, Utility Innovations
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