How Hackers Could Cause a Massive Blackout Via Residential Air Conditioners

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There’s one piece of equipment that many homeowners have in their homes which saves a great deal of money and energy — but researchers are now saying that this one item could make it possible for hackers to take down an entire regional power grid.

As reported by WIRED, researchers Vasilios Hioureas of Kaspersky Lab and Thomas Kinsey of Exigent Systems conducted a study on remote shut-off devices in air conditioning units to see how easily these devices could be hacked into. The research was conducted as part of a larger collaboration in the Securing Smart Cities initiative and the findings were recently presented at the Kaspersky Security Analyst Summit.

These remote shut-off devices are often provided by utility companies and homeowners install them into their air conditioners so that the energy company can remotely turn off air conditioners during peak summer months when demand for energy is high. Most utility companies offer homeowners a discount for installing the devices.

These devices are part of a larger virtual network called the “Internet of Things” (IoT) which is growing bigger by the day. The Australian Business Review states that 50 billion devices are expected to be connected in the IoT by 2020; these devices range from coffeepots that can be programmed through a mobile app to “smart” thermostats that automatically adjust settings by tracking residents’ activity in the house. Remote shut-off devices for air conditioning units are just one piece of the ever-growing digital puzzle.

This puzzle is convenient ad nauseam, but the biggest problem is that the IoT is presenting many security threats.

Hioureas and Kinsey discovered this when conducting their research. A couple hundred dollars can get you the equipment needed to take down a whole neighborhood of air conditioners, or even an entire city.

As trivial as it sounds, taking down this many air conditioning units at once can create dangerous living conditions for elderly and sick residents. Moreover, the sudden disturbances in the power grid can set the entire grid off balance and cause a massive power outage.

“I believe people let their utility company install these devices to receive discounts on their bill,” said Aaron D. Freedman, President, Total Air, Inc. “The great thing about today’s technology is that homeowners may be able to install a programmable thermostat in their home that they can set, which will help reduce their energy costs just as much without relinquishing control to the utility company.”

Regardless of whether hackers really are interested in targeting air conditioners at this point, it’s clear that we need to keep a sharp eye on security threats as the Internet of Things evolves.