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Vulnerabilities / Threats

1/31/2012
01:23 PM
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Researchers Postpone Release Of Free Smart Meter Security Testing Tool

Amid smart grid vendor's concerns about ShmooCon talk, public disclosure of research into smart meter infrared ports put on hold

Smart grid researchers pulled their talk and planned release of a new security assessment tool for smart grid meters during the ShmooCon conference after a vendor voiced concerns about the research.

Don Weber, a senior security analyst with InGuardians, had planned to introduce on Saturday evening a new homegrown tool that tests for both vulnerabilities and functionality in smart grid meters -- via the devices' infrared ports.

"At the eleventh hour, we had a vendor with some serious issues about it -- nothing specific, just some general stuff they wanted to take some time to look at a little more. In the interest of responsible disclosure, we took this under advisement," says Jimmy Alderson, chief operating officer of InGuardians. "We feel the issues are not a real concern ... but we respect [the vendor] and want to play ball. We will still do the talk after we assuage their concerns."

Alderson says there were no official threats of legal action by the vendor, which he declined to name. InGuardians had not planned to name any vendors in Weber's presentation, either. Legal threats and vendor pressure are nothing new in the security research community: There have been multiple occasions where vendor backlash has forced researchers to pull their presentations at Black Hat, DefCon, and, last year, at TakeDownCon.

Critical infrastructure vendors and providers are increasingly facing the rare glare of the security spotlight. Earlier this month at Digital Bond’s S4 Conference, researchers exposed major security holes in six popular programmable logic controllers used in power plants and manufacturing sites. Their work is now part of the Metasploit penetration testing tool, with one module now available for hacking the GE D20 PLC -- and other exploits to follow for Rockwell Automation, Schneider Modicon, and Koyo/Direct LOGIC.

[An Italian researcher earlier this year released 0-day SCADA exploits leaving companies vulnerable to exploit, and Emerging Threats project releases update to help detect attacks. See 0-Day SCADA Exploits Released, Publicly Exposed Servers At Risk.]

InGuardians' Weber says his Smart Meter Assessment Communications Kit can help vendors and utilities assess just how the bad guys can or can't get in: "It's a security assessment," he says, adding there's always the possibility that bad guys will use such tools for nefarious purposes. "They're going to write their own stuff to do it, anyway."

The Python-based tool basically demonstrates ways the infrared port on a smart meter can be penetrated, looking for vulnerabilities and possible attacks. "There's no third-party software to interact with individual meters. There wasn't a way for utilities to test the implementation of their meters or for vendors to see what others are going to throw at their meters," Weber says. "So we wanted to provide an industry method of doing research into this area so you can determine what anomalies [exist]," he says.

The tool can be used for both assessing security and functionality of the meter via the infrared port, but the user would require the proper credentials to perform fuzzing and other analysis.

"[The tool] helps them increase visibility: We're giving vendors more of a flashlight into what's going on in the optical port," Alderson says. "This allows vendors to test and do QA."

The tool exposes some of the issues InGuardians has found in these devices. It would allow a utility to detect a brute-force password attack on its infrared smart meters, for example, and to make adjustments to the meters. With the password to a meter, an attacker would have access to information, such as configuration data, and could ultimately shut the device on or off, for example. "Once you can talk to the meters, you can program them to do anything you want," Weber says.

But such an attack would entail someone walking up to a single meter. "Right now it's a single meter at a time: There's no big impact on the overall grid," he says.

The tool basically plugs into a laptop and includes a serial port client that interacts with the optical infrared functionality.

InGuardians plans to continue updating the tool with more functionality, and plans to eventually release it as well as reschedule its presentation for another conference this year once the vendor issues are resolved.

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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

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