Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Vulnerabilities / Threats

8/7/2020
04:45 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
100%
0%

Hacking the PLC via Its Engineering Software

Researcher will demonstrate at DEF CON an emerging threat to industrial control networks.

Attackers don't need to directly hack into a programmable logic controller (PLC) to wreak havoc on an industrial process: they can target its configuration files and pivot from there.

Researchers over the past year have been exposing easily exploitable holes in the so-called project files that reside in industrial control system (ICS) software for PLCs. Nadav Erez, research team lead at Claroty, will demonstrate at DEF CON today one such attack on a PLC project file, that of Phoenix Contact's PLCnext Engineer software, which engineers use to configure the vendor's PLC. Phoenix Contact's vulnerable project file software, which was recently patched, is the latest in a series of such software programs from PLC vendors patched for flaws, including Mitsubishi, Rockwell, Schneider, and Siemens. 

PLC project files or directories are created in the PLC vendor's engineering software to configure the PLC's settings — including the logic that programs it to control machinery or industrial processes. The ICS software, which is stored on an engineer's computer or file server, handles the project files for PLCs when they get programmed by the engineer. "The PLC is operating on its own ... but if you make any change to the project file, you probably download it to the PLC so it's updated with the latest configuration," Erez says.

It's a relatively simpler way for an attacker to get access to a PLC, too. "The barrier to attacking PLCs is getting the PLCs," he says.

The vulnerability in the PLCnext Engineer versions 1046008 2020.3.1 and earlier is in how the restricted directory is accessed in the software such that an attacker can change the path of that file. The build settings of a project can be exploited so that an attacker can run malicious code via those files.

Here's how an attack could unfold: An attacker first would need to obtain the ICS software associated with a specific PLC product, something Erez says is relatively simple to purchase online. The attacker then could write scripts and manually edit a file to add malicious attributes, he says.

The next, and arguably the most difficult, step is convincing the engineer at the targeted organization to open the rigged project file. It's a social engineering exercise, either via a phishing email or even in an online support forum. The attacker could pose as another engineer having difficulty opening a project file, a scenario Erez paints like this: "'I've got this project file and my software version doesn't open it. Can you please help me? I saw on LinkedIn that you're an engineer working with Phoenix Contact devices ... maybe you can tell me what the issue was?'"

If the engineer falls for the ruse, downloads the file, and then opens it via their engineering software, the attacker is in. "Unlike opening a regular document or link, when you open a project file, you have to do it from a computer that's connected to a critical network segment ... the computer where you have the ICS software installed," he says. This gets the attacker to the ICS server — and a direct line to the PLC.

"If you have access to the PLCs, then it's pretty much game over for the PLCs," Erez says.

The bright spot with PLC project file vulnerabilities is that they're fixable via software. "It's not hardware or firmware on PLCs, so it's a lot easier to issue updates and for engineers to update the software," he says.

Erez says Claroty has reported dozens of these project file vulns to ICS vendors, and that until recently this was a lesser-studied vulnerability surface.

Spotting a PLC project-file attack would require monitoring the network to spot any unusual activity around the PLC as well as advanced endpoint protection for the Windows servers running the ICS software.

"We want ICS engineers to be aware that these files may have vulnerabilities inside of them," says Erez, who will present this research in the DEF CON ICS Village.

Related Content

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor 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 ... View Full Bio
 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Commentary
Ransomware Is Not the Problem
Adam Shostack, Consultant, Entrepreneur, Technologist, Game Designer,  6/9/2021
Edge-DRsplash-11-edge-ask-the-experts
How Can I Test the Security of My Home-Office Employees' Routers?
John Bock, Senior Research Scientist,  6/7/2021
News
New Ransomware Group Claiming Connection to REvil Gang Surfaces
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  6/10/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
The State of Cybersecurity Incident Response
In this report learn how enterprises are building their incident response teams and processes, how they research potential compromises, how they respond to new breaches, and what tools and processes they use to remediate problems and improve their cyber defenses for the future.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2021-24376
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-21
The Autoptimize WordPress plugin before 2.7.8 attempts to delete malicious files (such as .php) form the uploaded archive via the "Import Settings" feature, after its extraction. However, the extracted folders are not checked and it is possible to upload a zip which contained a directory w...
CVE-2021-24377
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-21
The Autoptimize WordPress plugin before 2.7.8 attempts to remove potential malicious files from the extracted archive uploaded via the 'Import Settings' feature, however this is not sufficient to protect against RCE as a race condition can be achieved in between the moment the file is extracted on t...
CVE-2021-24378
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-21
The Autoptimize WordPress plugin before 2.7.8 does not check for malicious files such as .html in the archive uploaded via the 'Import Settings' feature. As a result, it is possible for a high privilege user to upload a malicious file containing JavaScript code inside an archive which will execute w...
CVE-2021-24379
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-21
The Comments Like Dislike WordPress plugin before 1.1.4 allows users to like/dislike posted comments, however does not prevent them from replaying the AJAX request to add a like. This allows any user (even unauthenticated) to add unlimited like/dislike to any comment. The plugin appears to have some...
CVE-2021-24383
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-21
The WP Google Maps WordPress plugin before 8.1.12 did not sanitise, validate of escape the Map Name when output in the Map List of the admin dashboard, leading to an authenticated Stored Cross-Site Scripting issue