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Practical analysis of the cybersecurity of European smart grids


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This paper summarizes the experience gained during a series of practical cybersecurity assessments of various components of Europe's smart electrical grids.
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Practical analysis of the cybersecurity of European smart grids
Gleb Gritsai, Alexander Timorin, Kirill Nesterov, Alexander
Tlyapov, Sergey Gordeychik
This paper summarizes the experience gained during a series of
practical cybersecurity assessments of various components of Europe’s
smart electrical grids.
Cybersecurity, SIL, industrial control system (ICS), IEC 61850,
Smart Grid, smart grids, vulnerabilities, relay protection
Smart grid technologies are now being widely implemented across
Europe. To a large extent this trend reflects a focus on energy efficiency
and the mass adoption of mini- and microgeneration renewable electric
power sources. The main regulatory guide in this field is Directive
2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and Council of 23 April 2009; this
document sets the target of achieving 20% power generation from
renewable sources by 2020, and 80% by 2050.
In this article, we summarize the experience gained during a number
of practical security assessments of various components of Europe’s smart
Scope of work
In this article, we define industrial control system (ICS)
cybersecurity as the process of ensuring operation of a management object
with no dangerous failures or inadmissible damage. It also implies the
target level of economic efficiency and reliability being maintained under
the conditions of a purposeful negative human-induced information
This definition makes it possible to apply a mission-centric
approach 1 to a security assessment and to use existing industrial and
functional security, reliability theory for risk assessment and threat
modeling. The findings of this analysis will be published in our subsequent
The main objects of the research were determined based on NISTIR
7628 Guidelines for Smart Grid Cyber Security2.
For the purposes of this research, the basic model envisaged an
anonymous intruder with average skills and acting over the Internet. This
adequately models the capabilities of a motivated group of ‘hacktivists’ or
of a medium-budget industrial espionage campaign or criminal operation.
In our research we did not look at attack vectors associated with CVSS
adjacent networks, including local radio networks. The results of our work
showed that at the current time it is impractical to consider more complex
intruder models or attack methods, since even an anonymous intruder
acting from the Internet has sufficient opportunity to conduct a variety of
This article presents the findings of several independent projects
aimed at assessing the security of different elements (network
communications, elements of relay protection and automatic equipment,
SCADA, application software, small-scale power generation systems).
This research does not claim to be complete.
Security of communication
As can be seen in the NIST Smart Grid Framework model, different
data communication lines exist between all the subjects. Therefore, the
communication lines and application protocols are a substantial element of
the attack surface, and the degree to which they are protected largely
determines the security status of the entire system.
Security audits at a number of power facilities in Europe have
confirmed CIGRE’s conclusions3 that the IEC 61850 family of protocols
currently in use have low tolerance to eavesdropping, session spoofing and
man-in-the-middle attacks. However, despite the fact that IEC 61850 has
been widely implemented, a practical assessment of security has
demonstrated that standard ICS data communication protocols such as
Modbus, S7, PROFINET, and IEC 60870-104, are widely used at power
During our analysis, we prepared a number of tools for the
identification, modification and fuzzing of communication protocols; some
of these were published as open-source tools4 and presented at the Power
of Community conference in Seoul, South Korea. The practical application
of these tools enabled us to identify a number of unknown vulnerabilities
in different systems, such as being able to disable a Siemens S7-1200
controller by sending Profinet packets5.
The findings of this research were used in a number of projects,
including CRISALIS6, Shodan. At the 4SICS conference in Stockholm,
Sweden, John Matherly presented his project ICS Map7, which is based on
the Shodan system core, but scans systems using industrial protocols. This
project can be used to identify industrial systems connected to the Internet.
Figure 2. A map of Shodan IEC 60870-104 systems on the Internet (June
However, the attack surface is not limited to ICS protocols. During
a presentation at the Chaos Communication Congress 30 conference8, it
was demonstrated that ICS components make widespread use of standard
application layer protocols for remote administration and communication
of information. In fact, only 2% of all detected ICS systems on the Internet
used industrial communication protocols.
Figure 3. Protocols used by ICS components detected online (December
Further research has shown that many of the devices detected online
are network hardware supporting internal or external communications of
ICS systems. For example, it is stated in the 2016 Kaspersky Lab
publication ‘Industrial Control Systems and their online availability9 that
around 28% of all ICS components detected on the Internet are network
devices such as industrial grade routers, cellular modems, etc.
Figure 4. Types of ICS components reachable from the Internet (2016)'
To obtain a better understanding of possible attacks, a security
assessment was carried out for network devices used in industrial systems
such as Bintec, Digi, Moxa, Sierra Wireless. This analysis showed that
such systems typically have low protection levels, and that there is an
abundance of vulnerabilities that are easy to detect and exploit, such as
hardcoded passwords, hardcoded SSH keys, weak mobile communications
(2G/3G/4G), web management interface issues, and buffer overflows. If a
potential intruder exploits one of these vulnerabilities, it enables them to
modify network device configurations, monitor and redirect traffic, block
network communications and/or gain unauthorized access to internal
components of industrial systems.
The findings were presented at the conference 32C3 in Germany10.
The appropriate manufacturers have now fixed most of the detected
Special mention should be made of the widespread use of global
wireless networks, such as 2G/3G/4G mobile networks in the energy
sector. Our research, which was presented at the conference PacSec,
Japan 11 , demonstrated how vulnerabilities in core mobile network
components (SGSN/GGSN), mobile modems and SIM cards can be used
to intercept network communications and introduce unauthorized
modifications, modify firmware installed on devices, and gain
unauthorized access. Many of these attacks can be implemented from an
arbitrary location and do not require a physical location close to the target.
In April 2017, security incidents in several German banks were identified
where cybercriminals exploited vulnerabilities in signaling networks to
intercept text messages 12 . This demonstrates that such methods are
available to groups of cybercriminals.
For a fuller picture, it is necessary to look at the security risks around
small-scale power generation from renewable sources.
During our research project, we analyzed attack surfaces and
searched for vulnerabilities in four popular solar and wind-driven power
generation platforms: Solar-Log and SMA SunnyWebbox facilities, and in
the Nordex NC2 portal which is used as a SCADA system for Nordex
wind-driven power plants. The analysis showed that over 80,000 such
systems are accessible on the Internet. Many of them do not require
authorization before they provide data on the amounts of electric power
produced and other technical information, so it is possible to passively
estimate the capacity of power generation through an analysis of OSINT
sources, such as Google’s cache. '
Figure 5. Information on power generation from Solar Log'
By averaging the obtained data, we found that the average
instantaneous power output of those systems that can be reached via the
Internet is about 8 GW, a large part of which is produced in Europe.
Another peculiarity of small generation facilities is that they make
extensive use of cloud-based centralized management systems. With this
approach, inverter management systems are connected to the centralized
reporting system located at the site of the manufacturer or operator, and
they send information there about the status of the systems, electrical
power outputs, wind velocities, etc. In some cases, the centralized systems
have certain control capabilities, e.g. they can update firmware of the
inverter management systems. In that case, an attack on the management
system can lead to mass unauthorized access to endpoint devices.
Figure 6. The web interface of GSE SpA,'
centralized power generation accounting system '
A superficial analysis has shown that most of these cloud-based
solutions do not meet basic security requirements, so an attacker may be
able to find a vulnerability in them that allows unauthorized access to the
system13. Therefore, management systems, including those that are cloud-
based, must be taken into account when planning security upgrade
If we look at how well protected endpoint devices are, we can see
that they have a very low level of resistance to external attacks. During our
analysis, we detected a number of 0-day vulnerabilities within the firmware
of such systems 14 , including fixed and master passwords, insufficient
authentication/authorization, weak cryptography, various types of buffer
overflow. In most cases, the potential risk associated with the detected
vulnerabilities enabled a potential threat actor, whether directly or
indirectly, to gain full access to the device by executing an arbitrary code
or downloading modified software.
When combined with operational errors, such as the widespread use
of default passwords, all of the above make these kinds of ‘home’ systems
an attractive target for attacks. This is currently the case for home routers
and other Internet of things (IoT) devices that may be used to manipulate
gauge readings, penetrate information systems of connected municipal
electric grids, and carry out a variety of specific attacks to disrupt power
system stability.
Examples of such attacks are the sending of false information about
power generation or consumption in an attempt to destabilize the power
grid, or a new type of ransomware blocking the management systems of
solar or wind-driven power generation. The current trend towards
integration between microgeneration management systems and smart
power meters only serves to provide cybercriminals with more
The findings were reported to the appropriate authorities and
agencies, such as IMPACT, ENISA, ICS CERT, hardware manufacturers
and to regional CERT teams, so they could inform device owners and block
remote access to ICS systems from the Internet. Thanks to this project,
more than 60,000 ICS components associated with microgeneration were
disconnected from the Internet15.
Digital substations
ICS systems used in industrial-scale power generation and
distribution were also found to have low security levels. Here, the typical
defects are the extensive use of obsolete or unsupported operating systems,
weak protection tools, multiple vulnerabilities in SCADA and PLC, and
unprotected network protocols. This, combined with low levels of network
isolation and widespread use of under-protected radio communication
channels, is the reason why a targeted or spontaneous cyberattack could
easily be implemented.
Recent security incidents involving Ukraine’s energy systems16 and
the WannaCry case have demonstrated that standard attack methods, such
as spear phishing or exploits for known vulnerabilities, are sufficient to
penetrate internal ICS networks.
Figure 1. A centralized traffic control system blocked by the WannaCry
Digital protective relays are a key component of digital substations.
They are designed to promptly identify damaged components in electrical
power systems in emergencies and isolate them from the system to ensure
normal operation. In other words, they are an element of accident
During our security assessment projects at power generation and
distribution facilities, we analyzed digital protective relays of leading
manufacturers, such as NARI Relays, Siemens, ABB, and General
Electric. Different types of vulnerabilities were identified, including
hardcoded management passwords, unpatched 61850 Stack, remote
reboots, permanent DoS, and remote code execution.
By exploiting combinations of vulnerabilities, attackers can
manipulate operating parameters for systems or facilities, remotely control
circuit breakers, disconnect and grounding switches, disrupt the proper
operation of terminals, and even use them as intermediate platforms for
malware distribution.
The research findings were presented at the conferences Area'41'in'
Zurich 17 'and'RECON'BRUSSELS 18 . Information about the detected
vulnerabilities was reported to the appropriate manufacturers as part of a
responsible disclosure policy. Some of the vulnerabilities have now been
fixed by the vendors.
The experience gained from cybersecurity analysis of Smart Grid
technologies has demonstrated that electric grid systems are highly
vulnerable to accidental or deliberate information impact.
Despite the obvious economic benefits, implementation of Smart
Grid creates the following potential cybersecurity problems:
widespread use of standard network technologies (TCP/IP, 3G/4G,
WiFi), system and application technologies (OS, database
management systems), and all their associated security problems;
blurring the boundaries of power system protection and the system
control role, with the transfer of a number of emergency prevention
blurring of the network perimeter and increased attack surfaces as a
result of large numbers and various types of network devices with
different owners, but that are connected in a single network;
minimal attention to cybersecurity issues by the designers and
integrators of ICS components, leading to the emergence of large
numbers vulnerabilities that are cheap to exploit.
Consequently, modern Smart Grid implementations contain large
numbers of system-wide and specific vulnerabilities both in individual
components and in overall ICS systems and networks. Identifying and
using these vulnerabilities requires an average level of expertise and a
modest level of funds. The implications of such attacks vary from local
fraud to negative physical impact on power substation components to
large-scale network accidents.
5'SSA-654382: Vulnerabilities in SIMATIC S7-1200 CPU,
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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