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Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) & the Smart Grid: Composition & Security Issues

Instructor: Erik Rodriguez

Erik has experience working in Cybersecurity and has a Master's of Science in Information Systems.

In this lesson, we will learn about advanced metering infrastructure and its components. Additionally, we will discuss some of the security issues involved in AMIs and ways to resolve them.

Lighting Up Our World

You sit in your room diligently typing up your research paper as your laptop continues to charge. The gentle hum of the fan whirs in the background. The light emanating from your desk lamp illuminates your workspace. The convenience of electricity is not always noticed, yet it plays a vital role in our everyday life. Perhaps more unnoticed is the infrastructure which allows us to measure and monitor our energy usage.

AMI Defined

Advanced metering infrastructure, or simply AMI, is a system that consists of smart meters and networks that facilitates in measuring, collecting, and analyzing energy usage. In using smart meters, this system allows for better monitoring of utility usage by customers and more efficient delivery of those utilities. Additionally, AMIs provide utility providers and customers with better functionality than traditional metering infrastructures. For instance, a distinguishing feature of AMIs is that it allows for two-way communications with the provider and the customer.

Components of an AMI

AMIs consist of four basic components. These include the head-end system, the collector, smart meters, and the communication channel. These components work together in order to provide AMIs with their functionality.

Head-End System

The AMI's head-end system is the main hub for the entire infrastructure. The head-end system is directly responsible for collecting and managing the data received from the customers' smart meters. To do this, the head-end system is comprised of metering data management software in order to analyze the data collected. Typically, the head-end system is located in the DMZ of the provider's network.

Collector

The collector in an AMI is tasked with being the communication node between the head-end system and the smart meters. Data from smart meters is sent to the collector which then forwards the data to the head-end system. When the head-end system sends commands to the smart meters, it first sends them to the collector which then forwards them to the appropriate smart meters. The collector is typically placed between the provider's network and the neighborhood area network (NAN).

Smart Meters

Smart meters are devices that are tasked with monitoring and collecting data regarding a customer's utility usage. Smart meters have the ability to communicate with the collector as well as other nearby meters. Additionally, smart meters also possess specialized ports which allow technicians to gain diagnostic information. Smart meters are physical devices that are installed at the customer's premises and connect to the NAN.

Communication Channel

The final component of an AMI is the communication channel. The communication channel is the collection of networks in which the entire infrastructure is built on. Without this system of networks, none of the components would be able to communicate with one another. Typically, the communication channel consists of the provider's network, a wide-area network (WAN), and the neighborhood-area network (NAN).

Potential Security Issues

Due to the expansive nature of an AMI, several security issues must be taken into consideration when developing a security plan. A malicious actor can target components of an AMI in various ways depending on what they hope to achieve. A successful cyber attack can cause widespread damage to the infrastructure and can leave thousands of customers without energy.

Misconfigured AMI

A misconfigured AMI can leave sensitive components directly exposed to hackers. For example, placing the head-end system in front of the DMZ instead of behind it can allow a threat actor to access it. In doing so, a hacker will have access to all aspects of the AMI and carry out further attacks. For example, by accessing the head-end system, a hacker can control smart meters, access consumer data, and even cause system outages. Ensuring that all components are configured on the network properly will ensure attacks like these do not occur.

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