British homes equipped with new smart energy meters can be targeted by malicious hackers, who would be able to remotely cut off power, security experts warn.
The new meters collect data about how people use gas and electricity and send it every 30 minutes to a utility firm for storage and analysis. Some 400,000 households are already equipped with such devices. More will be installed between 2014 and 2019, bumping the number to at least 46 million.
But the smart meters and utility servers storing the collected data may be targeted by hackers for a number of nefarious reasons, security experts warn. In a worst-case scenario, a foreign government or terrorist group could use hacking techniques to deliver a decapitating cyberattack, which would cut off customers from the power grid, says the Foundation for Information Policy Research think-tank.
“Once you have the ability to turn off meters remotely, then it becomes a strategic vulnerability,” Ross Anderson, a Cambridge computer science professor and chairman of the think-tank, said as cited by the Daily Mail.
“If the Iranians or Chinese want to attack Britain, they could do so easily through smart meters. This is the modern day equivalent of a nuclear strike,” he added.
Anderson says the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British intelligence agency responsible for communications security, also told the government that it is worried about such threats.
Critics say the data collected by smart meters can be used by criminals, for example, to choose a time for breaking into a house or for identity theft.
Privacy advocates are concerned that the data could be used for customer profiling and utilities setting up targeted tariffs to maximize profits.
“As these are essentially communication devices transmitting data over a network, there are the associated security risks if the right measures are not taken,” said Anna Fielder, from the Privacy International watchdog.
The British government promotes smart meters as user-friendly devices to help people control their energy consumption and reduce the number of inaccurate bills.