Smashing the Smart Grid. Hackers target ZigBee.

It’s been a good week for scare stories about Smart Energy.  Whilst they’ve predictably generated some excellent headlines (and I can’t resist joining in), the facts behind them are very important.  We’re rushing into a global energy monitoring and delivery system with little understanding of whether or not it is secure.

What we can predict is that as soon as Smart Meters are deployed, the first impulse of every neighbourhood hacker will be to take control of their school or local government’s heating and air conditioning, just to prove they can.  At one level, that’s a local annoyance.  If it affects our utility bills it becomes more than an annoyance.  And if it were co-ordinated by someone with a more malicious intent, then turning everything on at a peak time would take the grid down.   So it’s important that we make sure it is as secure as possible.

That makes the two pieces of news this week a lot more important than just providing the excuse for a good headline.  The first announcement was that the Information Trust Institute at the University of Illinois has been granted $18.8 million for a five year research project on securing the Smart Grid.  The second piece of good news is the release of a set of ZigBee hacking tools by Joshua Wright at ToorCon11.  These will let developers discover what vulnerabilities exist within the ZigBee standard, which is vitally important if it wants to be selected for use in Smart Meters.  Josh describes his work as “will hack for SUSHI“.  As far as I know he’s not received any sushi for his efforts, let alone an $18.8 million grant.  If the Government is serious about the security of the energy supply, they should consider diverting some of that funding in his direction. 

So why should we be worried…?

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Smart Meters and Stupid Governments – Time for Dedicated Spectrum

Are our governments really serious about Smart Metering, or are they just throwing money away as a political gesture?  Increasingly it looks as if it’s the latter.  Barack Obama just made a headline announcement that the U.S. Government is prepared to waste $3.4 billion putting smart meters into 13% of U.S. homes.  The reason for my cynicism is a lack of standards, particularly with respect to the choice of a wireless specification to link the meters with each other and to appliances around the home.  The current choices are not based on any understanding of technology, rather than lobbying by companies desperate for funding.  As a result, there’s a strong chance that these meters will not work.

I was at the Wireless Congress in Munich last week and listened to at least four different wireless standards explain why they’re each the best choice for smart meters.  Not one of them was really convincing.  Most had slick marketing presentations, but underneath, there are some very good technical reasons as to why NONE of the current pretenders are the correct one to choose if we really want smart energy to work. 

The critical problem is the choice of the 2.4GHz frequency band, which is where most of the contenders operate.  Ten years ago that portion of spectrum, known as an Industrial Scientific and Medical band (ISM) was virtually empty.   Microwave ovens used it, but only for a few minutes each day.  Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee were all still dreams.  It was like a freeway built before cars arrived.  Today it is already congested and each new evolution of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi eat up even more of it.  In another ten years, which is before the Smart Meter rollouts will even have been completed, it is likely to be at a standstill. 

Smart Metering is an initiative that will cost billions of euros / dollars to install and which needs to continue to work for a lifespan of twenty or more years.  All of the prospective wireless technologies being considered for use in Smart Meters operate in open frequency bands that are likely to be heavily congested before the smart meter installation program is even started.  To use this spectrum for something as critical as smart metering is folly.

If Smart Metering is going to provide benefits, it deserves its own wireless spectrum and standard.  It’s not too late for regulators to set aside spectrum and for standards bodies to get together to produce an optimal standard.  If they don’t, we risk wasting trillions of dollars and failing to achieve any reduction in energy consumption.

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Energy Harvesting – The lights may be going out for ZigBee…

Every farmer knows that if they want a good harvest they need to take care where they sow their seed.  One of the first principles they’ll learn is to sow the seeds on their own land, not their neighbours.  So I was somewhat shocked to see the recent announcement from the ZigBee Alliance about their new Energy Harvesting profile, dubbed ZigBee Green Power.  In their press release they talk about a feature set to establish a global, standard technology for self-powered devices operating through energy harvesting techniques.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that as a goal.  Energy harvesting’s a fascinating area of technology, which has only recently emerged from research into reality, as better generating technology is devised, along with lower power radios.  It’s taken around twenty five years to come to fruition, during which companies and researchers have been actively patenting their ideas and techniques.  Those patents don’t just cover the energy harvesting devices, they cover all of the parts of the chain – generating the power, converting it to a form that can be used, storing it, connecting to a radio and transmitting information.  They also cover the applications, such as wireless light switches.

Hence my amazement at the naivety of the ZigBee Green Power press release.  Whether or not ZigBee can come up with a specification that is able to run on a few tens of microJoules of power is irrelevant – I’m sure they can as they’ve bright people working in the specification group.  What is far more important is whether or not it will be legal for anyone to ship a device that is based on it, as it will almost certainly infringe the Intellectual Property of the main stakeholders.  So the press release looks like either an ill thought out, opportunistic attempt to regain some momentum, or a worrying piece of evidence that the ZigBee Alliance has lost the plot…

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Continua Health Alliance takes the bigamous route – Bluetooth and ZigBee.

After months of debate, the Continua Health Alliance finally announced its choice of wireless technology for low power medical devices.  Bluetooth low energy and ZigBee have been the key antagonists in this process and today Continua decided to make it a threesome and share its bed with both partners.

Both brides proudly announced the forthcoming nuptials, Bluetooth claiming that it had been chosen as the Health Device Standard, and ZigBee pronouncing that it has been selected for the next generation standard.

Whilst most people outside the specification groups will dismiss this as irrelevant, it does have some important implications, as it presents medical device manufacturers with a dilemma – which of these two wireless standards do they choose?  We’re at a point in time where we’re about to witness a new phenomenon of internet connected, consumer medical devices, which will open up the possibility of a new era of personal healthcare.  If manufacturers become confused about which of two incompatible standards to use, they’ll delay their products, with a resulting delay in availability and implementation.  It’s important that doesn’t happen.

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ZigBee and the evil radios

Ten years ago, Bluetooth, 802.11 and HomeRF were engaged in an acrimonious battle for supremacy over leadership as the short range radio standard.  HomeRF died, and in the following years Bluetooth and 802.11 found their areas of application and now coexist together, to the extent of joining forces in the new Bluetooth 3.0 specification.  Today a new and ferocious fight is taking place for the role of ultra low power radio champion.  This time, there is likely to be just one winner.


In the two main corners of the ring are ZigBee PRO and Bluetooth low energy (previously known as Wibree).  Alongside them, throwing lighter punches, are an array of lesser contenders, including Z-Wave, ANT, Wavenis, and Wireless M-Bus.  What is at stake is the prize of becoming the standard for connecting low power consumer products to the next generation of mobile phones and enabling smart energy devices within the home.

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Shakeout in Short Range Wireless suppliers gains momentum

Last week’s announcement that the IP behind Meshnetics’ ZigBee stack is being acquired by Atmel underlines the continuing consolidation of the short range wireless industry.   Since the boom in short range wireless that was started by Bluetooth and Wi-Fi there has been a growing number of VC funded silicon and stack companies entering this market space.   It has been obvious for some time that the number of companies is not sustainable and that at some point the bubble would burst.  The sale of Zensys to Sigma heralded the start of the process.  2009 will be the year when momentum builds and a lot more wireless dreams hit the buffers.

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