America's Hackable Backbone

America's Hackable Backbone
America's Hackable Backbone 

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 
yet materialized.

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 
patched systems.

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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