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

9/3/2013
10:12 PM
Tom Parker
Tom Parker
Commentary
50%
50%

Red Teaming the Electric Grid

Tom Parker explores the complexities of an attack against the US bulk electric system.

Over the next week in Vegas, Jonathan Pollet and I will be making our annual trip to the desert, to teach our SCADA security course out at UBM’s Blackhat Training & Briefing event. In response to increased media-created fear, uncertainty and doubt over whether groups like Anonymous are capable of successfully attacking the electric grid, through its various digital interconnections, we’ll be spending a half day discussing what exactly would be required / involved in pulling off a successful attack against the US bulk electric system (or “BES”). The point of this activity is not so much to provide attendees with a road-map to conducting such an attack (indeed, this couldn’t be learned in a half day), but to understand the relative complexity of pulling off such an attack, owing to the highly heterogeneous nature of the target environment, therefore making it fairly laughable that anyone except a well-funded nation state could likely pull off a broad-scale attack. For those of you who won’t be able to join us out in LV, here’s the skinny for your enjoyment and hopefully, to provide you some talking points next time you’re asked about such craziness.

One, the electric grid isn’t a single grid. In Northern America (and Europe), the “grid” is actually comprised of multiple, regionalized grids, each with its own ability to sectionalize and isolate itself from outages which may be occurring inside and outside of its operating region. The two primary grids that you’ll hear people talk about are the western and eastern interconnections; however, Texas also has its own grid, as does Quebec (although generally considered to be part of the eastern US interconnection). The point here is that you’re not just targeting one grid, you’re at very least targeting four, each with their own fault isolation and monitoring systems which would need subverting.

Two, the electric grid doesn’t run Windows. Well, at least not most of it. If you consider the numbers of “assets” involved in the operation of the grid, a very small percentile are running any kind of standardized operating platform, and where they do, mostly exist in control / monitoring rooms. When we’re talking about doing physical damage to power lines, transformers and generators, we’re now talking about an extremely heterogeneous environment, which you will find seldom configured in any kind of symmetrical manner, even within a given electric utility. This means that in order to attack this type of equipment , you n not only need to know make, model, firmware version etc, but you also need to understand the context under which the device has been deployed in order to effect the desired impact on whatever it happens to be hooked up to. Even if you’re able to compromise a more monolithic layer, such as a control room, this will only buy you an interface to the field-equipment (PLC’s RTU’s etc) which is what ultimately needs manipulating to make things go bang and lights go out. It is this nuance which made Stuxnet so sophisticated, given its ability to target highly specific industrial processes and the field devices (PLC’s), which were associated with nuclear enrichment.

Finally, it is not to say that such an attack would be impossible, it is just unlikely to manifest itself in the way that we generally view the smash-and-grab nature of most cyber-attacks. The military doctrine of preparing the battlefield is much more likely to apply, which is to say; that a well-funded, long-term campaign would likely be necessary, to gather sufficient intelligence on the environment and position sufficient resources, such that once critical mass is reached, an event may be triggered (such as a cascading failure within each grid geography) which would overcome countermeasures in place. This isn’t something that can happen overnight or come cheaply.

Tom Parker is CTO at FusionX

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Oldest First  |  Newest First  |  Threaded View
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Current Issue
6 Emerging Cyber Threats That Enterprises Face in 2020
This Tech Digest gives an in-depth look at six emerging cyber threats that enterprises could face in 2020. Download your copy today!
Flash Poll
State of Cybersecurity Incident Response
State of Cybersecurity Incident Response
Data breaches and regulations have forced organizations to pay closer attention to the security incident response function. However, security leaders may be overestimating their ability to detect and respond to security incidents. Read this report to find out more.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-8015
PUBLISHED: 2020-04-02
A UNIX Symbolic Link (Symlink) Following vulnerability in the packaging of exim in openSUSE Factory allows local attackers to escalate from user mail to root. This issue affects: openSUSE Factory exim versions prior to 4.93.0.4-3.1.
CVE-2020-1927
PUBLISHED: 2020-04-02
In Apache HTTP Server 2.4.0 to 2.4.41, redirects configured with mod_rewrite that were intended to be self-referential might be fooled by encoded newlines and redirect instead to an an unexpected URL within the request URL.
CVE-2020-8144
PUBLISHED: 2020-04-01
The UniFi Video Server v3.9.3 and prior (for Windows 7/8/10 x64) web interface Firmware Update functionality, under certain circumstances, does not validate firmware download destinations to ensure they are within the intended destination directory tree. It accepts a request with a URL to firmware u...
CVE-2020-8145
PUBLISHED: 2020-04-01
The UniFi Video Server (Windows) web interface configuration restore functionality at the “backup� and “wizard� endpoints does not implement sufficient privilege checks. Low privileged users, belonging to the PUBLIC_GROUP ...
CVE-2020-8146
PUBLISHED: 2020-04-01
In UniFi Video v3.10.1 (for Windows 7/8/10 x64) there is a Local Privileges Escalation to SYSTEM from arbitrary file deletion and DLL hijack vulnerabilities. The issue was fixed by adjusting the .tsExport folder when the controller is running on Windows and adjusting the SafeDllSearchMode in the win...