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11/30/2011
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Unprotected SCADA Systems An Avoidable Risk

Disconnecting SCADA systems from the Internet prevents opportunistic hacking

Though the Department of Homeland Security isn’t yet ready to call the recent system failure at an Illinois water-processing plant an act of cyberterrorism -- a direct contradiction of an initial report by the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center, which labeled the event “a cyber intrusion” -- the incident still calls attention to how the U.S. SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) infrastructure remains woefully unprotected.

The water pump at the Springfield utility burned out after the SCADA system cycled the pump off and on continuously until it failed, raising an alert to the operators.

Reading about this, my spidey-sense was tingling ... What? They have SCADA control systems hooked up to the public Internet? And they are running phpMyAdmin!?

It would appear it is common practice these days to connect these sensitive critical-infrastructure systems to the public Internet and use COTS (Common Off The Shelf) software to manage them.

Convenience and price are always desirable to those responsible for managing these systems, but this is bordering on criminally negligent when you are responsible for our water, power, gas, and other sensitive utilities.

Quoting Ira Winkler, a penetration-testing consultant and advocate for better SCADA security: “The overriding weakness of these supervisory control and data acquisition systems is that they are ultimately connected to the Internet. They were originally designed to be set up as isolated, but as businesses and utilities using them grew, they connected to their enterprise networks, which in turn connected to the Internet."

That means if attackers can hack into the enterprise network, then from there they can hack into the SCADA network. "I don't know why this is acceptable," Winkler says. "It's devastatingly stupid."

I can’t help but agree with his assessment. In fact, when you drill down far enough, you find there are no regulations on the books that compel owners of these networks to properly secure them. As Winkler also points out, there are guidelines and recommendations and voluntary standards, but nothing with “legal bite” that can issue “penalties for failing to comply.”

The truth is, there are utility companies operating right now where their SCADA systems are hooked up to the Internet, tempting cyber hacks along the same lines with what was reported to have occurred at the Springfield water plant. Manufacturers, integrators, and operators are all at fault here; if a random hacker can break in without any real effort, then can you imagine what a determined adversary might be able to accomplish?

Chester Wisniewski is a senior security adviser at Sophos Canada

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