IoT devices, they’re smart, stylish but not secure! Now they can melt down the power grid.

By Cameron Abbott and Jessica McIntosh

Internet-of–things (IoT) devices are considered part and parcel of modern day living, however it can no longer be overlooked, this so called ‘smart technology’ continues to spark serious security concerns. Until recently concerns centred on individual security and privacy, now Princeton University has widen the scope and found (if compromised) IoT devices have the potential to disrupt the power grid. It’s worth repeating, researchers at Princeton University last week presented at the 27th USENIX Security Symposium in Baltimore (US) and stated high – wattage IoT devices, dubbed BlackIoT, pose a significant risk to power grids. As a result, local power outages and large-scale blackouts could be a likely consequence of compromised IoT devices.

This new type of attack, labelled the ‘manipulation of demand via IoT’ (MadIoT) involves attackers leveraging a botnet, powered by Wi-Fi enabled high- wattage devices such as air conditioners and heaters to manipulate the power demand in the grid. This allows an attacker to hijack the devices in totality and simultaneously switch them on or off.

The scenario played out was ‘if the sudden increase in demand is greater than the threshold, it can cause the system’s frequency to drop considerably before primary controllers can react’. This instability can result in the activation of the generators’ protective relays, loss of generators and finally a blackout. Whilst it is estimated an attacker would need a botnet of approximately 90,000 air conditioners and 18,000 heaters within a specified geographical area, experts say this is by no means an impossible task.

The newly discovered vulnerability reinforces how important it is that consumers and companies alike perform their own due diligence with respect to integrating IoT devices, time and time again we are seeing these devices being stylish and trendy but not well secure. Therefore, assumptions can no longer be made regarding the adequacy of in built security – instead manufactures must recognise the importance of secure coding practices so this new type of abuse can be easily detected and dealt with. Government sponsored attacks would find these forms of vulnerability very attractive.

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