Smarter, greener technology begets high-tech risks

By Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

Computers and computer networking can bring powerful new features to existing infrastructure and technologies.

But sometimes it's easy to forget that making technologies "smarter" can also leave them vulnerable to new, high-tech risks and threats like viruses, hackers or cyber terrorists.

Take the concept of smart grids, for example – adding computerization to the power grid can promote greener, more efficient use of power and prevent outages caused by overloading.

In such systems, already in use in some parts of North America, computers monitor and respond automatically to changes in the demand for electricity by balancing the load on the grid and the pricing of the electricity. The two-way communication built into the system also allows "smart" appliances to respond to changes in pricing. Ultimately, proponents hope such systems will help support the growth of other greener technologies like electric cars and cogeneration, where heat and electricity are produced and distributed simultaneously.

But it's not all rosy and green. On Monday, the Seattle-based technology security company IOActive announced that it had "verified significant security issues within multiple smart grid platforms."

Those vulnerabilities "could further expose the country to attacks on our critical power infrastructure" by letting unauthorized users gain control of the system, leaving utility companies vulnerable to "possible fraud, extortion attempts, lawsuits or widespread system interruption," said a company release.

This isn't a problem that's unique to the transition from regular power grids to smart grids. Similar security issues have arisen during the switch from:

Another example is with the rise of cloud computing, in which information and technology services reside (and are ultimately accessible) on a computer network.

It's worth noting that the security risks didn't hinder the widespread adoption of any of the above technologies, even though those risks persist to some extent.

Nevertheless, IOActive's report is a good reminder that while technology promises powerful new tools, those inevitably come with new risks and problems that we need to think about and deal with before embracing the new technology's benefits.