One of the biggest cybersecurity issues facing the world today is the venerability of the so-called Internet of Things. Every day millions of unsecured IoT devices are utilized in DDOS attacks by hackers, bad state actors, and botnets. This is one of the reasons that the Raspberry Pi Foundation decided to turn off SSH access in Raspbian by default just a few years ago, but now with more and more devices joining the IoT every day, something has to be done on a larger level to prevent cyberattacks that could cause lots of real-world harm.


Image Credit: Princeton University


Researchers have long identified the US power grid as being a major target for coordinated cyber attacks that would result in massive implications for health and safety for US citizens. Imagine if you will an attack on the IoT connected thermostats and appliances that many of us have in our homes today. If an attack caused them to all be switched on at the same time, the sudden spike in load to the electrical grid could cause massive rolling blackouts across the country. Transmission lines could overheat and melt, causing forest fires. Hospitals and medical care facilities could lose power and have to rely on generators that have limited fuel supplies to keep patients alive.  The food storage facilities across the country would see millions of tons of fresh food spoil and go bad. The ramifications of the power grid going down are massive, but researchers at Princeton think they have a solution to this threat.


In a recently published paper, Electrical Engineering researchers detailed new algorithms that would help to better protect cyber attacks that could cause massive load spikes to the power grid. With advancements in power station automation and control, small spikes in power demand do very little to affect the grid, and these systems work well at predicting demand, but they can not predict a cyber attack. These new algorithms would help detect an attack as it begins, and could alert power stations of an impending demand spike. This would allow the systems to ramp up power production in anticipation of the spike. T


“The researchers’ proposed solutions aim to optimize responses to a spike,” said lead author and postdoctoral research associate Saleh Soltan. “One set of algorithms automatically balances power provided by plants in ways that would prevent a line from getting overloaded in the event of an attack. Another, less costly approach would allow the grid to quickly recover after a power failure, thus avoiding larger, more sustained outages.”


“The cyber-physical nature of the grid makes this threat very important to counter because a large-scale blackout can have very critical consequences,” said study author Prateek Mittal, an associate professor of electrical engineering.


Take, for example, the Mirai botnet, a conglomeration of more than half a million IoT devices from around the world that were easily hacked due to their default login information never being changed to something more secure. This botnet of IoT devices such as Raspberry Pi SBCs and Roku Streaming Media Players was able to jam traffic to sites like Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, and other high-traffic sites via DDOS attacks. Now imagine what would happen if that many high-wattage airconditioners were switched on at the same time. “Controlling 600,000 high-wattage devices would give the adversary the ability to manipulate around 3,000 megawatts of power in an instant,” said Mittal


“As opposed to computer networks that have routing algorithms, in power grids, there is no notion of routing, so everything is based on physics,” said Soltan. “This is why you can't really prevent a certain line overload if you don’t change the supply and demand.”


As with everything in life, there is a tradeoff to integrating these algorithms into the current infrastructure in the form of about a 6% increase in operating costs for power production and management facilities with a system “robustness” increase of about 9%. This cost would likely be passed on to the consumer, rasing energy rates and causing public outcry.  The benefits seem to outweigh the cost though, so the issue of an increase in operating cost could be mitigated by educating the public as to why their rates went up.


“What kind of safety margin you need is really an operations question, but our approach has been to have a theoretical framework to answer all these questions,” said Soltan. For grid operators, “it’s a tradeoff between how much you increase the cost and how much robustness you have against these attacks.”


“This is a typical example of security research: As the environment changes, previous assumptions no longer hold and new attack vectors are discovered,” said Edgar Weippl, an information security specialist and research director of SBA Research in Vienna. “As everything becomes ‘a computer,’ much higher electrical loads can now be centrally controlled. In addition, a higher share of renewable energy might reduce backup kinetic energy in the grid.”