New partnership to fend off cyber attacks on rooftop solar in South Australia

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As one of the oldest assets, grids can be vulnerable to cyber attacks, and increasing number of devices that connect to it, such as distributed rooftop PV, are also opening the door to potential intrusions. With around 1 GW of small-scale solar PV on the South Australian grid at the end of June, the state is looking to beef up its electricity network and fend off potential cyber threats.

The focus of a new partnership between MITRE and the Australian Cyber Collaboration Centre will be to detect insider threats and protect South Australia’s smart grid, as well as tackle global cybersecurity threats further into the future. Working across government and industry, the U.S. non-for-profit corporation which operates federally funded research and development centers has developed approaches to detect and mitigate attacks that target public and private institutions.

“MITRE has worked to enhance the security and resilience of U.S. critical cyber systems and infrastructure from more than 50 years,” said Gary Gagnon, MITRE’s vice president for cyber strategy and chief security officer. “We look forward to working with South Australia on areas of joint concern where we can make it more difficult and time-consuming for adversaries to attack key critical infrastructures sectors.”

MITRE’s partner in Australia, the Australian Cyber Security Centre, secured $8.9 million in funding and a home at the Lot Fourteen innovation precinct in Adelaide last month. The centre will support startups, scale-ups and existing businesses to launch new products and services into global markets and is scheduled to be fully operational by July 2020.

As an early adopter of renewable energy sources, with one of the world’s highest rates of rooftop PV per capita anywhere in the world, South Australia is chosen as the optimal testbed for understanding the smart grid and how to use it to help support energy security into the future.

In 2018, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released the first annual report into the cyber preparedness of the market, stating that current provisions were inadequate. Furthermore, a recent report by consulting firm Accenture found attacks on critical infrastructure and connected technology were increasing, while the ability to prevent, detect or respond to these attacks remained low.

When mitigating vulnerabilities introduced by grid-connected rooftop PV systems, the focus is usually on inverters which collect and store the data. Namely, the internet-enabled communication between the inverter and the grid can potentially be used by hackers to throw voltage out of control and damage sensitive loads. But, in an effort to build resilience of solar energy infrastructure, the new partnership will seek to detect insider threats.

“As Australian businesses and government agencies have become better at stopping cyberattacks, criminals have shifted focus to prey on employees and coerce them to steal information or open backdoors into computer systems,” MITRE says. The U.S. corporation is teaming up with companies including DTEX, a cybersecurity provider founded in Adelaide and headquartered in Silicon Valley that protects some Australian agencies and businesses from insider breaches, including detection and investigation of citizen data theft, and companies such as AMP, a financial services firm headquartered in Sydney.

“We are excited about a strategic partnership with South Australia as we work to solve problems for a safer world,” said Julie Bowen, MITRE’s senior vice president for strategic engagements and general counsel. “Partnerships enable collaborative defense. Collaborative defense changes the individual homes protected by a single owner into a neighborhood patrolled by a community watch. We don’t simply push the problem to our neighbors but together we engage the adversaries broadly and bring into focus things that are seen through a straw.”