A security researcher at Black Hat USA shows how wind turbine systems are susceptible to potentially damaging cyberattacks.
[Updated 10:00pmET with technical clarifications and updates from the researcher]
BLACK HAT USA – Las Vegas – Gaping security holes in wind energy control networks make them vulnerable to cyberattacks for extortion and physical destruction purposes, a researcher showed here today.
Jason Staggs, a security researcher at the University of Tulsa, has spent the past couple of years crisscrossing the US and hacking away at the control systems that run the wind turbines that convert wind energy into electrical power. He did so with the blessing of operators of the wind farms, who allowed him to test the security of a single turbine at their sites and with the stipulation he would not disclose the names, locations, or products involved for security reasons.
What he found was a disturbing trend among these renewable power systems: "We were seeing the same vulnerabilities over and over again" across multiple wind farms and across multiple vendors' equipment and models, Staggs said in an interview with Dark Reading last week.
If the vulnerabilities he found seem familiar, it's probably because they are typical of traditional ICS/SCADA-type systems: easy-to-guess or default passwords, weak and insecure remote management interfaces, and no authentication or encryption of control messages.
Staggs says that in some cases, an attacker would need physical control over just one turbine at a wind farm to take over the entire operation. He physically plugged a homegrown Raspberry Pi-based tool onto the control system network, to wrest control over other turbines in the farm.
It's a matter of having "physical access to [inside of just one] one turbine to rule them all," he says. Staggs, who presented his research here today at Black Hat, says he was able to pull off the hack at multiple wind farms around the country, although not all wind farms nor turbines are affected by these attacks.
He admits that security weaknesses in the wind farms echo those of so many other ICS/SCADA systems also built for high availability operations as the priority. But he was most interested in what an attacker could do once he or she hacked the wind turbine system.
"No one is looking at the implications from an attacker's motive: how could they leverage this access to [get] control the wind turbines in order to damage them or hold them for ransom?" he says.
Extortion-type hacks could be lucrative, he says, with downtime for a system costing $10,000 to $30,000 per hour. "If you can hold a 250 megawatt [wind farm] at ransom for one hour" the wind farm operator just might be willing to pay a less expensive ransom fee, he says.
Wind today represents 5.6% of electricity generated in the US, according to the Department of Energy, and by 2030, wind could provide 20% of the nation's electricity.
"The more devious thing to do would be to gain access [to the wind turbine automation control system] and wait for years until we're more dependent on wind and then do bad things" with the systems, he says.
Wind farm vendors typically set up the systems for the wind farmers, which are typically power companies or their subcontractors Vendors school them on how to use and monitor the wind farm system. After that, the wind farmer is on its own for the actual operations, he says. So "we're helping them ask the right [security] questions" of the vendors, he says. "We're trying to raise awareness for electric utilities who operate these wind farms."
Hack the Wind
The wind-turbine automation controllers Staggs tested were stationed sat the base of the turbine - with only a padlock as physical security. Staggs says there were no security mechanisms in place, so his only obstacle was to crack the hardware lock. "You can pick [the lock] or cut it with bolt cutters, open the door, and have complete access" to the wind farm control network, he says.
Staggs in one attack installed a malicious binary on the automation controller that sends commands to other controllers in the turbine, allowing him to alter process control variables for the power and motors.
The programmable automation controller – basically the brains of the system – communicates to other controllers that interface with the turbine's mechanical hardware components. It's most commonly a Windows embedded, Linux, or Vxworks, system, Staggs found.
"If you know what you're doing, you can actually mess with the braking system to degrade its [physical] integrity," he says.
Wind Hacking Tools
Staggs built two network attack tools for his wind turbine research, Windshark and Windpoison. Windshark takes advantage of the unencrypted protocols between the human operator and automation controllers inside the turbines. "It can change the operational state of a turbine; turn it on and off," he says. "Or change the maximum power output."
Windpoison basically executes man-in-the middle attacks on the wind farm control network. "We can control what the operator sees while we're doing our turbine attacks," he says. "We could falsify the current operating status of wind turbines," for example, he notes.
Staggs hopes to release the tools once the turbine equipment vendors fixed the security flaws he has identified.
To pull off any of these attacks, an attacker would need some knowledge of the systems and vendor equipment, however. "Sometimes the attacks have to be customized for different vendors," too, he says.
The good news is that there are some things that operators of wind farms can do for now to protect their networks from ransom, sabotage, or other cyberattacks, including segmenting the network and ensuring that wind turbines are isolated from one another on the network to avoid a single point of failure via an attack. Staggs also recommends adding an inline firewall between turbines, or adding encrypted VPN tunnels between turbines in the field and their substations.
"So if one turbine automation control system is compromised, it can't compromise the others," Staggs says.
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