Researcher warns of industry-wide security problems with industrial control systemsMon 27 Feb, 2012 // Briony Williams
Terry McCorkle, a Cyber Security Assessment Specialist with Boeing, and his fellow researcher Billy Rios, presented the results of their research into the security of industrial control systems (ICS) to the Kaspersky Security Analyst Summit 2012 in Cancun, Mexico, earlier this month. They found glaring security vulnerabilities throughout the industry, of a type that could not be easily patched, and in numbers far in excess of what they had expected.
Industrial control systems are used to monitor and manage a very wide range of industrial plants and processes, including nuclear power plants and air-conditioning systems. Although widely assumed to be safe from attack since they are not connected to the Internet, the researchers found that in fact many of these systems could be reached by an attacker due to the presence of a Human-Machine Interface (HMI). The HMI translates the status and functioning of an ICS system into a graphical representation that can be accessed on the Internet, and which can be used to make operational changes to the ICS.
The researchers set out to find one hundred security bugs in the space of a hundred days, believing that this would represent a large and worrying number. In the event, in the course of nine months they found more than one thousand bugs, of which the vast majority (95%) would have been easy for an attacker to exploit.
McCorkle explained that there were several factors underlying this extreme lack of security. One of these was the fact that secure development lifecycles for this type of software did not exist, while another was the fact that security is often disabled by default, even though the HMI is reachable over the Internet using remote administration tools such as VNC. Another, less technical, reason for this situation is the fact that the ICS systems are often managed by third-party companies that have little stake in the system’s security.
McCorkle called on vendors in the ICS industry to develop products that would incorporate security features by design and automatically, since the present system (which places the full burden on the customer) was clearly not working.
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