Researcher releases smart meter hacking tool

Termineter designed for researchers and penetration testers, SecureState says

Security consulting firm SecureState today released a new open source hacking tool that it claims will let security researchers and penetration testers verify the security of electric utility smart meters being installed in millions of homes around the country.

The tool, called Termineter, is available for public download from SecureState's website and will be demonstrated at the BSides security event in Las Vegas next week. The company had earlier sent out a stripped down version of the tool to a limited number of individuals.

Security consultancy InGuardians had planned to publicly release details of a similar tool called OptiGuard at the Shmoocon security conference a few months ago. The company however pulled the talk at the last minute in after a unnamed smart grid vendor and several utilities expressed concern that the tool would allow hackers to exploit vulnerable smart meters.

InGuardian is scheduled to disclose details of its tool at the Black Hat security conference also being held in Las Vegas next week.

Spencer McIntyre, a SecureState researcher said the goal in releasing Termineter publicly is to raise awareness of security issues pertaining to smart meters and to get vendors of such products to address those issues.

Power companies and utilities will be able to use Termineter to identify and validate internal flaws that make the meters vulnerable to hacking and tampering, he said.

The tool will give independent security researchers a way to probe such meters for potential access control and user authentication weaknesses, he said. "[Termineter] will give them low level access to smart meters to do security assessment of the device," regardless of the vendor of the device, McIntyre said.

Termineter supports ANSI C12.18 and ANSI C12.19 standards, and can communicate with smart meters via the infrared ports on each device. The tool will let penetration testers and researchers get direct access to the data on the meter.

Currently, Termineter modules allow testers to read and write raw data on a device in order to get it to respond in specific ways, McIntyre said. Researchers can extend Termineter's capabilities to build their own applications around it, he said.

Smart meters are a crucial component of the smart grid. The devices are designed to collect energy consumption data from homes and transmit it back to power distribution companies for billing, network and demand management purpose. The technology also lets consumer view their energy usage patterns in near real time to help them better manage home energy use.

Utility companies around the country are in the process of installing millions of smart meters in homes to better manage energy consumption, respond to demand better and eventually offer tiered rating plans based on a consumer's energy use habits.

The problem is that there are no publicly available tools for testing the security controls of these systems, McIntyre said. Poorly configured and poorly protected smart meters can allow attackers to take control of the system and manipulate the data that they collect and transmit, he said.

"They can read and modify any data, they can reset usage tables, they could change the rate type," and commit other types of fraud, he said.

Most meters provide low-level access to the device, mid-level administrative access and super-user privileged access to the device, he said. Without the proper tools there is no way that utility companies and others can verify the strength of the access control and authentication mechanisms the device maker might have put in place for controlling access, he said.

McIntyre downplayed concerns about tools such as Termineter giving malicious hackers easy access to something they can use to attack smart meters. The same sort of open source tools that were used to build Terimenter is available to anybody that wants it so there's no telling if similar tools haven't already been built by malicious attackers, he said.

The tool as it exists today also requires the attacker to have a fairly good understanding of how smart meters work. To get it to communicate with a smart meter, users need to get physical access to the device he said.

Meanwhile, according to a description of InGuardian's presentation at Black Hat next week, the company will show how criminals can gather information and authentication credentials from smart meters. The company will also show how a smart meter's IR port can be used to interact with the device.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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