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Attacks/Breaches

DHS, FBI Dispute Illinois Water Hack

Feds say their preliminary investigation finds no evidence of stolen credentials or foreign attackers.

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The Department of Homeland Security and FBI on Tuesday issued a joint statement disputing that an Illinois water utility's industrial control systems were recently hacked.

The DHS's Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) and the FBI cautioned that findings issued by the DHS Illinois State Fusion Center--aka the Illinois State Terrorism and Intelligence Center (STIC)--"were intended to be initial raw reporting and not conclusive in nature."

Notably, the Illinois Fusion Center's reports had stated that a hack attack against the utility's control system software had been launched from Russia and ultimately resulted in the burnout of a water pump. The report also said attackers accessed the control system using stolen credentials.

But ICS-CERT said that after studying a log file shared by the state Fusion Center, it "could not validate the claims made in the report," though it added that the investigation was continuing and that it is "actively working with the utility and the FBI to gather additional forensic data to determine what caused the pump to fail." ICS-CERT also said that the vendor of the industrial control system that may have been hacked "is a small regional systems integrator that builds custom solutions with a focus on local, rural water utilities."

[ Is enough money being spent on security? Read Federal IT Security Spending Called 'Light'. ]

Industrial control system security expert Joe Weiss, managing partner of consultancy Applied Control Solutions, said the inability of the government agencies involved to agree on what had happened was troubling, especially since Fusion Centers were created to quickly issue public infrastructure alerts in the wake of suspected attacks.

"The DHS statement released recently appears to conflict with the STIC report and its positive statements that an event had occurred. This begs the question why two government agencies disagree over whether a cyber event that damaged equipment had occurred at a water utility," said Weiss on his blog. "In addition, on Nov. 18 on a local TV station, the general manager of the water utility confirmed that it had been hacked with resulting damage to a water pump."

According to Weiss, the STIC report, which hasn't been publicly released, also stated the following: "It is unknown at this time the number of SCADA usernames and passwords acquired from the software company's database, and if any additional SCADA systems have been attacked as a result of this theft." In other words, investigators appeared to have traced the water pump burnout to an exploit of the utility's control system, which was executed using access credentials that had been stolen from the software vendor that developed the control system.

Weiss said that by issuing contradictory statements, the government agencies have now left potentially affected utilities in limbo. "We now have to wait for DHS and the other government agencies to come to [an] agreement and let us know what has happened. If the STIC report is correct, then we have wasted precious time and allowed many others in the infrastructure to remain potentially vulnerable while we wait to find out if we should do anything."

But will investigators find the data they need to definitively tell whether the utility was hacked? According to John Pollet of Red Tiger Security, most control systems lack the simple network management protocol (SNMP), meaning that a system log file wouldn't typically have recorded the type of information required to conduct a proper digital forensic investigation.

The FBI and ICS-CERT, meanwhile, are also investigating claims by a hacker, who uses the handle "pr0f," that he'd successfully infiltrated the industrial control system at a utility in South Houston, Texas. The hacker said he launched the attack after DHS downplayed the severity of the purported Illinois water utility hack.

Regardless of the outcomes of those two investigations, ICS-CERT and the FBI did sound a note of control system caution in their joint statement: "These events underscore the widespread vulnerabilities inherent in industrial control systems (ICS) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems which govern networks controlling critical infrastructure including power, water, and chemical production among other vital operations."

Sensitive customer and business data is scattered in hidden corners of your infrastructure. Find and protect it before it winds up in the wrong hands. Also in the new issue of Dark Reading: The practical side of data defense. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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