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Security Incidents Rise In Industrial Control Systems

Even with minimal Internet access, malware and breaches are increasingly occurring in utility, process control systems

While only about 10 percent of industrial control systems are actually connected to the Internet, these systems that run water, wastewater, and utility power plants have suffered an increase in cybersecurity incidents over the past five years.

A new report based on data gathered by the Repository of Industrial Security Incidents (RISI) database provides a rare look at trends in malware infections, hacks, and insider attacks within these traditionally cloistered operations. Cybersecurity incidents in petroleum and petrochemical control systems have declined significantly over the past five years--down more than 80 percent-- but water and wastewater have increased 300 percent, and power/utilities by 30 percent, according to the 2009 Annual Report on Cyber Security Incidents and Trends Affecting Industrial Control Systems.

The database logs security incidents in process control, SCADA, and manufacturing systems, and gathers voluntary submissions from victim companies as well as from news or other reports.

Nearly half of all security incidents were due to malware infections -- viruses, worms, and Trojans, according to the report. With only a fraction of control systems connected to the Internet, these infections are occurring in other ways: "A lot of control systems are connected to their business networks which in turn may be connected to the Internet. It's several layers removed, but once there's a virus [on the business network], it finds its way into the control systems," says John Cusimano, executive director of the Security Incidents Organization, which runs the RISI database. "And you see USB keys bringing in malware" to the SCADA systems, for instance, or via an employee's infected laptop, he says.

Doug Preece, senior manager for smart energy services at Capgemini, says another entry point for malware are those process control system platforms that are based on Windows. "Some of these platforms have evolved over time to lower-cost, more open, Windows-based stuff," Preece says. "It's not connected to the Internet, so the ability to receive patches at the OS level is hampered. The management of these systems is not as closely monitored as it is at the enterprise OS level."

That leaves unpatched, out-of-date software running on the systems, which leaves them prone to attacks. "Out-of-date patching [makes] a highly vulnerable platform," Preece says. And all it takes is an infected USB stick or floppy drive to be popped into one of these machines and it's infected, he says.

At the time the report was published late last month, the database contained 175 confirmed incidents in the database, and Security Incidents Organization's Cusimano says the database averaged three- to four new incident reports per month.

Security experts say attacks targeting the power grid are likely to rise and intensify during the next 12 months, as smart grid research and pilot projects advance. So far, the RISI database has only logged a single smart grid incident, but such incidents are likely to increase, experts say.

Cusimano says the sole smart grid incident basically involved an HVAC system that knocked out service to thousands of residents in one community. "With the [federal] stimulus money, there are a lot of smart grid projects going in this year," he says. "The good news is that security" has been part of the equation from the get-go with these next-generation power grid systems, so it's not an afterthought, he says.

Even so, there are concerns that smart grid projects are moving forward a bit too fast, without allowing time for properly securing them, he says. Cusimano, whose day job is working with an automation consulting firm, says his company is working on a U.S. Department of Energy-funded smart grid project that has a tight timeline. "We have a very short deadline to prepare the security model," he says.

Page 2: Industry remains skeptical that it's at risk Meanwhile, the RISI report's findings of a major drop in chemical and petroleum security incidents may be the result of consolidated facilities and closed refineries, for instance, Capgemini's Preece says.

Water plant and wastewater plant incidents may be higher because they are typically required to issue press releases of incidents to their communities, notes Cusimano.

Overall, 25 percent of the security incidents in process control systems were intentional, directed attacks, where an outside attacker or an insider breached the system, according to the report. Of the remaining 75 percent, half were malware-borne, and half where equipment breakdowns or failures of some sort. Insider attacks rose 30 percent over the last five years.

Cusimano noted that there was an improvement in the number of viruses infiltrating control systems: the number of malware incidents has dropped by 83 percent in the past five years. "Largely, companies are doing a better job at firewalling their control systems and using anti-virus protection," he says. And if companies were to address their accidental incidents, most of them would also be protected from most targeted attacks, he says.

The financial impact of these incidents on the organizations is rising: according to the report, over the past five years, twice as many incidents added up to $10,000 to $100,000 in losses. The majority of incidents occurred in the U.S.

But the industrial process control sector remains largely unconvinced that they face major cybersecurity threats, he says. "There's a lot of skepticism that there's a real problem, particularly when it comes to doomsday scenarios like when the press talks about China or Russia breaking into a chemical plant to blow it up," Cusimano says.

And like the IT versus security dynamic in many enterprises, there's often a disconnect between the IT department and the SCADA group in process control, according to Cusimano. "The control system engineering department in control of the control systems and the plant's IT department have yet to find a way to work well together," he says. While the IT department looks at control systems as any other asset, it prioritizes confidentiality, then integrity, and then availability. "But the control systems department's priorities are reversed: availability is paramount, then integrity and confidentiality"

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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