Web extra: Campfire stories of SCADA insecurity

Editor's note: This story was updated May 15, 2006, at 11 a.m. to include the correct name of the Process Control Systems Forum.

As government and industry start taking the cybersecurity of industrial control systems more seriously, shocking and funny stories are emerging.

Robert Graham, chief scientist at Internet Security Systems, said an ISS team showed representatives from one small country that accessing a specially crafted Web address through a Web-enabled phone could shut down the national power grid and put the whole country in the dark.

In Australia in 2000, a former employee at a manufacturing software company attacked a sewer treatment plant after its operators refused to hire him, according to press reports. The man used his laptop computer to hack into the control system and override pump controls. That spilled more than 260,000 gallons of raw sewage into nearby rivers, parks and the grounds of a Hyatt Regency hotel.

The massive U.S. blackout in August 2003 wasn’t caused by cyberattacks – software bugs and human error were joint culprits – but it showed undeniable information technology security vulnerabilities in supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems in the electric power sector, according to the Energy Department in an April 2004 final report.

The blackout affected 50 million people in eight states and Ontario, Canada, and cost the United States $4 billion to $10 billion, the report states.

Nine months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, gas prices are still at record highs because many oil refineries and drilling platforms are still not operational, Graham said. A major cyberattack could be as effective as a hurricane at knocking out infrastructure, and one could hit without warning, he said.

April 26 marked the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Although there is no indication that control systems security failures played a role in the explosion, malicious hackers or foreign governments could break into a nuclear power plant’s control systems and cause a meltdown, experts say.

Cybersecurity for industrial control systems is so challenging because the code that runs them is so atrocious, said Jason Larson, senior cybersecurity researcher at Idaho National Laboratory, which leads federal efforts into critical infrastructure cybersecurity. One system he evaluated had every known vulnerability in it.

There’s no question that significant risks exist, but they vary by infrastructure sector and facility, said Patrick McBride, vice president for compliance solutions at Scalable Software.

Experts ignored SCADA security for years until the hacker community started taking notice of it in April 2005, said Scott Borg, director and chief economist at the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, an independent research group funded by the Homeland Security Department.

Discussion at conventions moved from how to break into systems to what to do once inside them, Borg said. The Black Hat Federal conference in Washington, D.C., last January was a turning point. Graham presented shocking examples of how basic hacking techniques could override SCADA systems.

Experts are quick to point out that no one has died yet in a direct cyberattack on control systems, and critical infrastructure employees are trained to handle emergencies. Few reported examples and known threats exist. But most incidents never get reported, said Michael Torppey, technical manager of the Process Control Systems Forum, an industry group focusing on control systems security.

That’s not to say that critical infrastructure attacks can’t kill people, McBride added. People died in the Northeast blackout when they couldn’t get medical care they needed.

A cyberattack on the scale of the 2001 terrorist attacks is unlikely because it doesn’t fit with terrorists’ goal of killing and scaring the U.S. public with a dramatic physical attack, McBride said.

It would be very difficult to launch a huge, coordinated attack against critical infrastructure that would cause equivalent physical, human and psychological damage, McBride said. Attackers would be more likely to park a truck bomb outside the front gates of a chemical plant than cause an accident through control systems, he said.

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