Science fiction-style sabotage a fear in new hacks

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“What all this is saying is you don’t have to be a nation-state to do this stuff. That’s very scary,” said Joe Weiss, an industrial control system expert. “There’s a perception barrier, and I think Dillon crashed that barrier.”

One of the biggest makers of industrial controllers is Siemens AG, which made the controllers in question. The company said it has alerted customers, fixed some of the problems and is working closely with CERT, the cybersecurity arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Siemens said the issue largely affects older models of controllers. Even with those, the company said, a hacker would have to bypass passwords and other security measures that operators should have in place. Siemens said it knows of no actual break-ins using the techniques identified by Beresford, who works in Austin, Texas, for NSS Labs Inc.,

Yet because the devices are designed to last for decades, replacing or updating them isn’t always easy. And the more research that comes out, the more likely attacks become.

One of the foremost Stuxnet experts, Ralph Langner, a security consultant in Hamburg, Germany, has come up with what he calls a “time bomb” of just four lines of programming code. He called it the most basic copycat attack that a Stuxnet-inspired prankster, criminal or terrorist could come up with.

“As low-level as these results may be, they will spread through the hacker community and will attract others who continue digging,” Langer said in an email.

The threat isn’t limited to power plants. Even prisons and jails are vulnerable.

Another research team, based in Virginia, was allowed to inspect a correctional facility _ it won’t say which one _ and found vulnerabilities that would allow it to open and close the facility’s doors, suppress alarms and tamper with video surveillance feeds.

During a tour of the facility, the researchers noticed controllers like the ones in Iran. They used knowledge of the facility’s network and that controller to demonstrate weaknesses.

They said it was crucial to isolate critical control systems from the Internet to prevent such attacks.

“People need to deem what’s critical infrastructure in their facilities and who might come in contact with those,” Teague Newman, one of the three behind the research.

Another example involves a Southern California power company that wanted to test the controllers used throughout its substations. It hired Mocana Corp., a San Francisco-based security firm, to do the evaluation.

Kurt Stammberger, a vice president at Mocana, told The Associated Press that his firm found multiple vulnerabilities that would allow a hacker to control any piece of equipment connected to the controllers.

“We’ve never looked at a device like this before, and we were able to find this in the first day,” Stammberger said. “These were big, major problems, and problems frankly that have been known about for at least a year and a half, but the utility had no clue.”

He wouldn’t name the utility or the device maker. But he said it wasn’t a Siemens device, which points to an industrywide problem, not one limited to a single manufacturer.

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