Industrial Control Systems Killed Once and Will Again, Experts Warn

Industrial Control Systems Killed Once and Will Again, Experts Warn
Industrial Control Systems Killed Once and Will Again, Experts Warn 

By Ryan Singel 
Threat Level
April 09, 2008

On June 10th, 1999 a 16-inch diameter steel pipeline operated by the 
now-defunct Olympic Pipeline Co.  ruptured near Bellingham, Washington, 
flooding two local creeks with 237,000 gallons of gasoline. The gas 
ignited into a mile-and-a-half river of fire that claimed the lives of 
two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old man, and injured eight others.

Wednesday, computer-security experts who recently re-examined the 
Bellingham incident called its victims the first verified human 
causalities of a control-system computer incident. They argue that 
government cybersecurity standards currently under debate might have 
prevented the tragedy.

"I've logged over 90 incidents in all industries worldwide," said Joe 
Weiss, managing partner at Applied Control Solutions, speaking at the 
RSA Conference in San Francisco. "The damage ranges from significant 
equipment failure to deaths."

Following the 1999 incident, a nearly three-year investigation by the 
National Transportation Safety Board concluded that multiple causes 
contributed to the deadly conflagration, including pipeline damage 
inflicted by construction workers years earlier, and a misconfigured 

But the factor that intrigues Weiss and fellow researcher Marshall 
Abrams, a scientist at MITRE, is a still largely unexplained computer 
failure that began less than 30 minutes before the accident and 
paralyzed the central control room operating the pipeline, preventing 
workers from releasing pressure in the line before it hemorrhaged.

With support from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and 
Technology, Weiss and Abrams pored over public government records on the 
incident, looking at it through the lens of a pending cybersecurity 
standard called NIST 800-53. The duo concluded that the requirements in 
the standard would have prevented the explosion from occurring.

"The NTSB concluded that if the SCADA system computers had remained 
responsive to the commands of the Olympic controllers, the controller 
operating the pipeline probably would have been able to initiate actions 
that would have prevented the pressure increase that ruptured the 
pipeline," reads the NIST report.

"These are the first fatalities from a control-system cyberevent that I 
can document, and for a fact say that this really occurred,"  Weiss said 
in an earlier interview with

Security experts and government investigators have long warned that the 
complex networks controlling critical infrastructures like the power 
grid, and gas and oil pipelines, were not built with security in mind -- 
a point driven home by several incidents of the systems failing. In 
January 2003, the Slammer worm penetrated a private computer network at 
Ohio's Davis-Besse nuclear power plant and disabled a safety-monitoring 
system for nearly five hours. Later that year, a software bug in a 
General Electric energy-management system contributed to a cascading 
power failure that cut off electricity to 50 million people in eight 
states and a Canadian province.

Piecing together the computer failure at Olympic is difficult. A system 
administrator, two control room operators and their supervisor all 
refused to testify in the resulting investigation, citing their Fifth 
Amendment right against self-incrimination. Several key system logs from 
the VAX VMS minicomputer from the time of the accident were missing or 
deleted, for reasons that have never been determined.

But the NTSB's original report faulted an unnamed computer operator for 
adding records to a database that was running on the pipeline monitoring 
system. The board also noted that the overall system had security design 
defects, since it had connections to the larger company network that was 
itself internet connected and had dial-up lines.

The board found no evidence of a computer attack from the outside, 
though. But Weiss, an outspoken evangelist for tighter control-system 
security standards, said he's suspicious of the NTSB's finding that the 
computer operator was at fault.

"The NTSB said he was doing database updates on the live system," Weiss 
said Wednesday. "What did he do on this day that he didn't do everyday?"

Abrams seems less convinced, suggesting the explosion was "probably" a 
combination of human error and a badly designed computer system, with a 
dose of bad luck thrown in for good measure.

Regardless, Abrams said the point is the same, and the casualties at 
Bellingham still count as victims of a cyber-incident.

"Control systems are just a special case of information technology," he 
said Wednesday.

The NIST 800-53 standard, which is due to be issued this year, will only 
be binding on federal agencies, but might be voluntarily adopted by 
critical infrastructure providers in the private sector. Included in the 
standard are immutable audit logs, individualized passwords, and user 
accounts that have only the permissions the person needs.

Bellingham had none of those precautions in 1999. Weiss said little has 
changed in the industry since then

"Until eight years ago, my whole life was making control systems usable 
and efficient, and, by the way, very vulnerable," Weiss said. "It is 
exactly what you will find today in many, many industrial applications. 
This isn't just 1999. No, this is June 2008."


(Kevin Poulsen contributed to this report)

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