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Buggy 'smart meters' open door to power-grid botnet

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New electricity meters being rolled out to millions of homes and businesses are riddled with security bugs that could bring down the power grid, according to a security researcher who plans to demonstrate several attacks at a security conference next month.

The so-called smart meters for the first time provide two-way communications between electricity users and the power plants that serve them. Prodded by billions of dollars from President Obama's economic stimulus package, utilities in Seattle, Houston, Miami, and elsewhere are racing to install them as part of a plan to make the power grid more efficient. Their counterparts throughout Europe are also spending heavily on the new technology.

There's just one problem: The newfangled meters needed to make the smart grid work are built on buggy software that's easily hacked, said Mike Davis, a senior security consultant for IOActive. The vast majority of them use no encryption and ask for no authentication before carrying out sensitive functions such as running software updates and severing customers from the power grid. The vulnerabilities, he said, are ripe for abuse.

"We can switch off hundreds of thousands of homes potentially at the same time," Davis, who has spent the past few months analyzing a half-dozen smart meters, told The Reg. "That starts providing problems that the power company may not be able to gracefully deal with."

To prove his point, Davis and his IOActive colleagues designed a worm that self-propagates across a large number of one manufacturer's smart meter. Once infected, the device is under the control of the malware developers in much the way infected PCs are under the spell of bot herders. Attackers can then send instructions that cause its software to turn power on or off and reveal power usage or sensitive system configuration settings.

The worm, which Davis will demonstrate next month at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, is able to spread quickly. It exploits an automatic update feature in the meter that runs on peer-to-peer technology that doesn't use code signing or other measures to make sure the update is authorized. It uses a routine known as interrupt hooking, which adds additional code to the device's operating system.

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