There was a time when the thought of hacking a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system would have been more likely to be part of a fictional movie plot than a news story. Yet the recent disclosure of a vulnerability in Google's building management system (BMS) has served as another example of a real-life security gap that may be a bigger concern than some organizations realize.
"It seems that there has been a dramatic uptick against SCADA systems," says Billy Rios, technical director and director of consulting at Cylance. "It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but I'm guessing that the ability to easily discover these devices on the Internet plays a larger part here."
It was researchers at Cylance who uncovered vulnerability at Google. The effort is part of a larger project aimed at identifying vulnerable industrial control system at scale. So far researchers have already identified tens of thousands of devices, Rios tells Dark Reading.
"We're now moving into a nonintrusive fingerprinting phase," he explains. "This phase includes the ability to discover who owns the device [the integrator], as well as what project the devices is being used for -- like the one we found at Google. We're not actively scanning for vulnerabilities at this point, just information on the device that allows us to passively identify whether the device is vulnerable. We're most interested in vulnerabilities that would allow us to take over the device."
It is a good thing for Google that the researchers did not have malicious intent. As part of their research, they discovered Google was using an unpatched version of Tridium Niagara AX, a software platform that integrates different systems and devices for management at its Google Wharf 7 building in Australia. Using a few key pieces of data and a custom exploit, the researchers were able to access a file with configuration information for the device -- as well as administrative password information.
"We don't want to speculate too much about effects, but we do know we could have controlled the HVAC systems," Rios says.
The vulnerable system was pulled off the Internet after Cylance reported its findings to Google.
The situation uncovered by Cylance, however, may not be unique enough for organizations to dismiss. Last year, an FBI memo described a report of an attack against an air conditioning company in New Jersey in which attackers were able to access a backdoor into the ICS system that allowed access to the main control mechanism for the company's internal HVAC units.
Earlier this year at Black Hat Europe, Trend Micro threat researcher Kyle Wilhoit presented research that provided some indications as to where attacks targeting SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) software used to manage HVAC systems and various industrial processes may be coming from. Using honeypots, he revealed that during the course of 28 days, there were 39 attacks from 14 different countries on the phony industrial control systems he set up. The largest percentage of the attacks -- 35 percent -- originated in China. The second largest group, 19 percent, came from the U.S.
"The structure of many organizations makes it difficult for IT and security staff to participate in the configuration of industrial control equipment," observes HD Moore, chief research officer at Rapid7. "An engineer configuring a new environment control may be a contractor working for the finance department and have no interaction with the IT team.
"I was helping with a penetration test in 2011 that demonstrated just how common this problem is. The organization I was testing was a brokerage firm that was co-located within a larger bank's office, which, in turn, was in a shared office building. The firm accessed the Internet through a connection provided by the bank. The bank's connection, in turn, was managed by the building owner."
During the course of the test, some of the building equipment started to show up within the internal scans, he continues. The system that controlled access to the external doors was sitting on the shared network and required no password to manage, and an attacker could have remotely opened the external doors after compromising an internal user at the brokerage firm.
"IP-enabled industrial control systems should be isolated within a dedicated network segment and accessed over an encrypted, authenticated channel such as a VPN," Moore says. "These systems typically have limited built-in security controls and need all the help they can get to operate in a secure manner. Strong passwords, detailed logging, and frequent security updates can help protect these systems from unauthorized tempering even if an attacker gains access to the network."
Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Brian Prince is a freelance writer for a number of IT security-focused publications. Prior to becoming a freelance reporter, he worked at eWEEK for five years covering not only security, but also a variety of other subjects in the tech industry. Before that, he worked as a ... View Full Bio