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Thousands Of Industrial Control Systems At Risk: DHS Study

Researchers have identified about 7,200 Internet-connected critical infrastructure systems.

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Thousands of industrial control systems that manage and operate infrastructure such as power and water utilities are accessible over the Internet, according to a new study carried out with the help of the Department of Homeland Security.

The study, dubbed Project Shodan Intelligence Extraction (SHINE) by researchers Bob Radvanovsky and Jake Brodsky of InfraCritical, used a search engine called Shodan during the research process. With the aid of DHS' Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT), Radvanovsky and Brodsky culled a list of about 500,000 suspect IP addresses to about 7,200 "directly related to control systems" within the United States.

According to ICS-CERT's most recent quarterly report, many of those devices had "either weak, default, or non-existent logon credential requirements," meaning that nearly anyone could log in and potentially wreak havoc.

[ Where does the government stand on cyberattacks on the U.S.? Read Obama Secret Order Authorizes Cybersecurity Strikebacks. ]

As a result of the study, the government has notified foreign governments in more than 100 countries of non-U.S. Internet-facing industrial control systems, and is now working to identify and notify the owners of systems on the Project SHINE list.

Project SHINE echoes earlier research that had found many Internet-facing industrial control systems. Other Shodan-based research had found 20,000 vulnerable devices that were related to industrial control systems, many of them belonging to state and local governments.

The search engine used for the research, Shodan, scans the Internet and records specifications of Internet-connected devices. Aside from using it to find industrial control systems that are connected to the Internet, users of the search engine have used it in the past to access Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's cyclotron and access Cisco routers and switches.

Overall, ICS-CERT responded to 198 cyber incidents involving critical infrastructure systems in fiscal 2012, according to the report. That's 65% more than the 120 attacks reported to ICS-CERT in 2011.

Attacks on industrial control systems appear to be an increasing reality in the wake of the Stuxnet attacks on Iran's nuclear power plants, which used compromised Siemens control systems to destroy centrifuges intended for nuclear enrichment. A large majority of attendees surveyed at the October conference of the Information Systems Security Association predicted a major attack on U.S. critical infrastructure in 2013.

This is not the first time researchers have used Shodan to uncover vulnerabilities in supervisory control and data acquisition systems that operate machinery. ICS-CERT has several times since October 2010 warned companies that run industrial control systems that Shodan and other search engines can be used to discover and potentially access Internet-facing industrial control systems.

"In many cases, these control systems were designed to allow remote access for system monitoring and management," ICS-CERT warned in a 2011 release. "All too often, remote access has been configured with direct Internet access (no firewall) and/or default or weak user names and passwords. In addition, those default/common account credentials are often readily available in public space documentation."

Federal agencies must increase server utilization and energy efficiency as they squeeze more computer processing into fewer data centers. The new Data Center Optimization issue of InformationWeek Government explores how the Army, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and others are doing that. (Free registration required.)

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