By Andy Greenberg
The first time Scott Lunsford offered to hack into a nuclear power
station, he was told it would be impossible. There was no way, the
plant's owners claimed, that their critical components could be accessed
from the Internet. Lunsford, a researcher for IBM's Internet Security
Systems, found otherwise.
"It turned out to be one of the easiest penetration tests I'd ever
done," he says. "By the first day, we had penetrated the network. Within
a week, we were controlling a nuclear power plant. I thought, 'Gosh.
This is a big problem.'"
In retrospect, Lunsford says the station's safety mechanisms probably
would have prevented him from triggering a nuclear meltdown. But he's
fairly certain that by accessing controls through the company's network,
he could have sabotaged the power supply to a large portion of the
state. "It would have been as simple as closing a valve," he says.
The disturbingly vulnerable system that Lunsford hijacked is powered by
Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition software, or SCADA, a type of
software made by companies including Siemens (nyse: SI - news - people
), ABB (nyse: ABB - news - people ), Rockwell Automation (nyse: ROK -
news - people )and Emerson.
SCADA systems are used around the country to control infrastructure like
water filtration and distribution, trains and subways, natural gas and
oil pipelines, and practically every kind of industrial manufacturing.
And as some security professionals are pointing out, those weaknesses
are increasingly connected to the Internet, leaving large parts of
America's critical infrastructure exposed to anyone with moderate
information technology training and a laptop.
At the DefCon hacker conference earlier this month, security researcher
Ganesh Devarajan gave a presentation detailing how researchers can find
flaws in SCADA systems using "fuzzing," a technique that floods software
with data and tracks which input causes a crash, allowing hackers to
inject their own commands.
"These are simple bugs, but very dangerous ones," says Devarajan,
associate security analyst at 3Com-owned security firm Tipping Point. He
says he's alerted SCADA software vendors to all the flaws he's found,
but he nonetheless imagines a scenario in which someone plants a
contaminant in a water reservoir and hacks into water-quality sensor
systems to prevent detection. "If someone can provide false data," he
says, "They own the system."
To be sure, the threat of attacks on major SCADA systems isn't entirely
new, and the wave of cyberterrorism predictions that followed Sept. 11,
2001, have largely been dismissed as hype and paranoia. But given SCADA
systems' vulnerability, many experts wonder why those attacks haven't
One answer may be the sheer complexity of major infrastructure systems:
Though SCADA computers have weak external security, controlling them
takes engineering expertise. Most hackers could only gain enough control
to create the fear that they're capable of something worse, says Alan
Paller, director of the SANS Institute.
That means that even if outright attacks aren't increasing, there's a
growing threat of extortion, says Paller. In fact, the SANS Institute
hosts a crisis response center for cyberattacks, and Paller says he's
learned of multiple threats within the last year and a half from hackers
claiming to have infiltrated SCADA systems and demanding ransom. Other
shakedowns have likely gone unreported.
Paller predicts that those incidents will increase. "There's been very
active and sophisticated chatter in the hacker community, trading
exploits on how to break through capabilities on these systems," he
says. "That kind of chatter usually precedes bad things happening."
Extortion is more than an economic problem; racketeers could easily
trigger an accident while trying to demonstrate control over a facility,
says Marcus Ranum, chief security officer for Tenable Security. "To spin
a pump or move a valve, you don't have to be a petroleum engineer," he
says. "Then again, you could spin the wrong pump and blow something up."
Not every SCADA sabotage scenario is so hypothetical. In 2000, Vitek
Boden, a 48-year-old man fired from his job at a sewage-treatment plant
in Australia, remotely accessed his former workplace's computers and
poured toxic sludge into parks and rivers; he hoped the plant would
re-hire him to solve the leakage problem.
In January of 2003, SCADA system computers infected with the Slammer
worm caused a blackout at the Davis-Besse power plant in Ohio. Seven
months later, another computer virus was widely suspected of preventing
the detection of power loss at a plant providing electricity to parts of
New York State.
SCADA systems' lack of security features is a symptom of their age; most
were developed at a time when critical infrastructure systems weren't
connected to the Internet and needed no intrusion prevention. Some have
a 20-year life span, making them obsolete for years after they're
installed. And many of the companies that develop SCADA software make
installing security patches difficult or, fearing that patches will
hamper the software's operation, don't offer customer support for
All of which still leaves U.S. infrastructure open to crippling attacks
by criminal hackers or cyberterrorists, says Jim Christy, director of
future exploration at the Department of Defense's Cyber Crime Center.
"This is an Achille's heel for several of our critical systems," Christy
says. "Nation-states and terrorist organizations are definitely looking
at this as an option, a weapon of mass disruption."
That kind of risk means major security changes are necessary, says
Christy. But because SCADA systems are largely owned by the private
sector, critical infrastructure like power plants and water systems may
remain vulnerable until the problem affects profits--or leads to
disaster. Christy argues that we can't wait that long: His unofficial
opinion is that SCADA needs government regulation.
"The government mandates fire sprinklers. Those cost builders money, but
they save property and lives," he says. "If critical infrastructure is
important to our national security, shouldn't there be minimum standards
it has to meet?"
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