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Risk

8/30/2009
10:48 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary
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Hacking Oil Rigs

When it comes to cyberwar, real cyberwar, perhaps the most damaging attacks won't come in the form of denial-of-service attacks, but be aimed directly at our energy supply.

When it comes to cyberwar, real cyberwar, perhaps the most damaging attacks won't come in the form of denial-of-service attacks, but be aimed directly at our energy supply.A story I read in Foreign Policy magazine this week, New Threat to Oil Supplies: Hackers, highlights a security risk that many IT security pros have concerned a big problem for some time, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software:

A research team from the SINTEF Group, an independent Norwegian think tank, recently warned oil companies worldwide that offshore oil rigs are making themselves particularly vulnerable to hacking as they shift to unmanned robot platforms where vital operations -- everything from data transmission to drilling to sophisticated navigation systems that maintain the platform's position over the wellhead -- are controlled via wireless links to onshore facilities.

The usual threat of a takeover of the massive oil platforms is in the form of seaborne raiders; Britain's Royal Marines commandos still regularly train for hostage rescue on rigs that dot the North Sea. But now, according to SINTEF scientist Martin Gilje Jaatun, with the advent of robot-controlled platforms, a cyberattacker with a PC anywhere in the world can attempt to seize control of a rig, or a cluster of rigs, by hacking into the "integrated operations" that link onshore computer networks to offshore ones. "The worst-case scenario, of course, is that a hacker will break in and take over control of the whole platform," Jaatun said. That hasn't happened yet, but computer viruses have caused personnel injuries and production losses on North Sea platforms, he noted.

If you think this is hype, and cyber-criminals will stay content hacking servers and databases for your credit card information, and not energy supplies, you're underestimating the vulnerability and the threat. The worry here is that terrorist organizations or enemy nation-states hire the talent they need to shut down or disrupt the flow of energy.

We've been discussing SCADA security issues for some time. This is from my 2003 cover story, Rising Threat:

Experts disagree on how vulnerable the nation's critical infrastructure is, especially so-called SCADA, or supervisory-control and data-acquisition, systems that utility companies use to remotely monitor and control their operations. Joe Weiss, consultant with KEMA Consulting and former technical lead for cybersecurity of digital control systems security for the Electric Power Research Institute, says SCADA systems are vulnerable. "They were never designed with security in mind, and these systems are connected to the Internet," he says. "There's no doubt that you can get unauthorized access to these systems. It's been done often." But James Lewis, director of the technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, says any attacks against SCADA systems would be unlikely to cause anything more than "minor disturbances, like the outages in phone or electrical power that we already experience."

Just like our early local area networks, the Internet, and web applications SCADA systems were not designed with security in mind. But as time goes by, and more systems grow SCADA dependent the more I agree with Weiss and the less I agree with Lewis.

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