By Robert Lemos
19th June 2006
The outing of a simple crash bug has caused public soul-searching in
an industry that has historically been closed-mouthed about its
The flaw, in a particular vendor's implementation of the Inter-Control
Centre Communications Protocol (ICCP), could have allowed an attacker
the ability to crash a server.
Yet, unlike corporate servers that handle groupware applications or
websites, the vulnerable server software - from process-control
application maker LiveData - monitors and controls real-time devices
in electric power utilities and healthcare settings. The best known
types of devices are supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA)
devices and distributed control system (DCS) devices.
A crash becomes a more serious event in those applications, said Dale
Peterson, CEO of Digital Bond, the infrastructure security firm that
found the flaw.
"These are what you would consider, in the IT world, critical
enterprise applications. But the companies don't act like these are
critical enterprise applications."
LiveData maintains that the flaw is a software bug, not a security
vulnerability, pointing out that it only affects how the LiveData ICCP
Server handles a non-secure implementation of the communications
protocol - typically used only in environments not connected to a
"In general, SCADA networks are run as very private networks,"
LiveData CEO Jeff Robbins said. "You cannot harness an army of public
zombie servers and attack them, because they are not accessible."
The incident has touched off a heated debate among a small collection
of vulnerability researchers, critical infrastructure security experts
and the typically staid real-time process control systems industry.
The controversy mirrors the long-standing dispute between independent
researchers and software vendors over disclosing vulnerabilities in
enterprise and consumer applications.
In that industry, researchers have taken Apple, Oracle, Cisco and
Microsoft to task at various times over the last year for the
perception that the companies were not responding adequately to
reports of flaws in their software products.
Last week, at the Process Control System Forum (PCSF), a conference on
infrastructure management systems funded by the US Department of
Homeland Security, a similar debate played itself out. Perhaps three
dozen industry representatives and security researchers met during a
breakout session to hash out the issues involving disclosure. The tone
became, at times, contentious, said Matt Franz, the moderator at
conference panel on the topic and a SCADA security researcher with
"The vendors were sticking together saying that (researchers) didn't
need to be involved with SCADA flaws," he said. "'It puts people and
infrastructure in danger,' they said."
Moreover, many vendors did not appreciate the involvement of the US
Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), the nation's response
group tasked with managing the process of vulnerability remediation
for critical infrastructure, Franz said.
The LiveData flaw was the first flaw in SCADA systems handled by
US-CERT and the CERT Coordination Centre, the group that manages the
national agency. While valuable as a learning experience, the entrance
of a third party into the disclosure of a flaw in an infrastructure
system brought up more questions than answers. At the PCSF session,
many vendors voiced concerns over involving a third party.
"I did not come away with a feeling that any issues were settled,"
said Art Manion, internet security analyst for the CERT Coordination
Centre and a participant in the discussion at the conference.
The debate over how disclosure should be handled underscores both the
intense focus on SCADA and DCS systems as potential targets of
cyberattacks and the position of many companies in the real-time
process control systems industry that vulnerabilities in such systems
require special treatment.
"In security circles, it is widely discredited that you can secure
something though obscurity - yet SCADA systems are really obscure,"
LiveData's Robbins said. "That is not a statement of a principle of
security and doesn't rationalise anything, but is a fact."
Even SCADA security specialists agree that obscurity can raise the
hurdle enough to keep most online attackers from jumping into SCADA
"There are some legacy systems out there running plants that are more
secure than many latest and greatest systems, because they are not
connected to the internet or they are using obscure standards," said
Ernest Rakaczky, program director for process control systems at
infrastructure firm Invensys.
That's true - at least to an extent, said CERT Coordination Centre's
"The information on these systems can be found by a determined
attacker," he said. "Part of our outreach is to show that people can
find out about these things and find vulnerabilities."
Consultants who have done penetration testing and security audits of
real-time process control systems tell grim stories about the lack of
security in the systems. Data is transfered with no encryption using
protocols, such as Telnet and FTP, that are being phased out in other
industries; many firewalls have ports opened to any traffic; and, many
workstations still run Windows NT, said Jonathan Pollet, vice
president and founder of PlantData Technologies, a division of
infrastructure security company Verano.
"The guys who are setting up these systems are not security
professionals," he said. "And many of the systems that are running
SCADA applications were not designed to be secure - it's a hacker's
For between five and 10 per cent of the networks audited by PlantData,
a single ping attack or a data flood aimed at a SCADA system could
shut down most of the managed devices, Pollet said.
Yet, security researchers acknowledge that the software that monitors,
manages and runs the variety of manufacturing and infrastructure
control systems is indeed different. While researchers can hold the
threat of public disclosure over the heads of an uncooperative
software maker in the enterprise application arena, publicly outing a
flaw in a SCADA or DCS system has larger ramifications, Pollet said.
"You have to be careful disclosing these issues to the public when the
vendors seem uninterested in talking about the problem, because these
systems cannot be patched overnight and the information could prove
devastating in the wrong hands."
Moreover, software vendors and infrastructure operators legitimately
need more time because most of the industry's legacy systems were not
created to be easily updated.
And, to be fair, LiveData's response to the first SCADA vulnerability
handled by a third party - about three to six months for a fix and
less than nine months for notification - is in line with the response
from many enterprise and commercial software makers. Not bad for an
industry that has not had a history of third-party vulnerability
disclosure, said Digital Bond's Franz.
"The idea that someone outside their customer base would have access
to their product to find vulnerabilities is strange to them," said
Franz, who created an interest group within the Process Control
Systems Forum to hash out the issues.
Security researchers are not the only ones applying pressure to
software developers in the SCADA and DCS industry. The software
maker's customers - infrastructure owners and operators - are starting
to demand proof of security audits, especially in the power industry
where companies are required by a recent law to adhere to the Critical
Infrastructure Protection (CIP) guidelines published by the North
American Electric Reliability Council (NERC).
"The difference that a few months has made is absolutely incredible,"
said Lori Dustin, vice president of marketing and services for
infrastructure security company Verano. "The people I'm meeting with
now have a copy of the NERC documents in their hands."
While many in the real-time process control industry might not agree,
Invensys's Rakaczky stresses that allowing US-CERT to bring other
industries' vulnerability reporting practices to the bear on
infrastructure issues should help reduce communications problems and
"People will respond faster than if some random white hat calls them
up out of the blue," he said.
But, while vendors work with US-CERT and focus on improving product
security, infrastructure owners need to move more quickly to prevent
unauthorised access to their systems from the internet and implement
more strict auditing, Rakaczky said.
"Right now, we need perimeter protection," he said. "We need to stop
the wound from bleeding before we can heal it."
This article originally appeared in Security Focus.
Copyright =A9 2006, SecurityFocus
Attend the Black Hat Briefings and
Training, Las Vegas July 29 - August 3
2,500+ international security experts from 40 nations,
10 tracks, no vendor pitches.