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Experts advise caution, information sharing in wake of alleged utility attacks

Nov 21, 20114 mins
Critical InfrastructureData and Information SecurityDisaster Recovery

A number of alleged security incidents at utilities, in separate states within about a two-week period, has once again brought SCADA security to the front-burner.

Experts in the security of critical infrastructure have had the weekend to digest news that a public utility water pump in Springfield, Ill. was destroyed at the hands of remote attackers who were able to gain access to the SCADA systems controlling it. Their initial advice: Share any information that can minimize or stop the next attack, but don’t jump to conclusions.

Joseph Weiss, managing partner at Applied Control Systems LLC and author of the book Protecting Industrial Control Systems from Electronic Threat, initially broke the news on his blog.

A spokesman from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did confirm the incident, but would not confirm whether it was an attack.

“At this point it seems the facts of the incident are still not known. My sources indicate hackers may have nothing to do with this event, but they also told me the investigation is just starting,” says Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at IT security firm MANDIANT. “It’s important to differentiate between the threat to critical infrastructure (which is overestimated) and the vulnerability in critical infrastructure (which is underestimated).” A hacker known as “pr0f” would seem to agree with Bejtlich’s assertion that the vulnerabilities within the critical infrastructure are underestimated. Pr0f took exception with the DHS’ public response to the incident and published images to Pastebin as alleged proof that access was achieved at a SCADA system in South Houston.

“I dislike, immensely, how the DHS tend to downplay how absolutely the state of national infrastructure is,” pr0f wrote in the Pastebin post. The hacker also noted that the point of the intrusion wasn’t to harm any equipment. “I don’t really like mindless vandalism. It’s stupid and silly. On the other hand, so is connecting interfaces to your SCADA machinery to the Internet.”

Few would argue the latter point. The state of industrial and critical control system security has been in question for some time as we’ve covered previously in “SCADA security arms race underway and “A botched fix, not legal demands, nixed SCADA security talk.”

Scott Crawford, managing research director, Enterprise Management Associates, notes that the alleged Springfield attack was caused by an apparent exploit “of the software vendor, from which usernames and passwords were stolen (according to Joe Weiss’ blog). Like the attack against RSA earlier this year, this highlights the exposure that customers have to the security of their vendors,” he said. “Vendors need to stretch their thinking on risk management and consider how an incident can have a downstream impact on their customers that can be as great or greater than the impact on their own interests.”

The incident also sparked discussion around the role of information sharing and disclosure. MANDIANT’s Bejtlich argues that while mandatory reporting to a central critical infrastructure CIRT (Critical Incident Response Team) would be “a step in the right direction,” he doesn’t agree that public reporting will do much to improve critical infrastructure risk posture. “Public breach reporting isn’t necessarily going to improve security within critical infrastructure. Since 2006 I’ve advocated creation of a National Digital Security Board to investigate important incidents. NDSB reports do not need to “name names” in order to have a positive impact on security.”

Crawford says the concern still leans, in such incidents, to the PR damage that could be inflicted against the affected organization. “Overall, I think there is still far too much concern that disclosure will cost them the goodwill of the public, when in fact it would go far toward benefiting everyone by enabling many more who might be at risk to be better armed with valuable insight,” says Crawford.

Not everyone agrees communication is a major part of the problem.

“The solution here is not better communications. There does need to be awareness amongst the critical infrastructure providers about the threat, but unless they’ve been living under a rock the last few years they know,” says Anup Ghosh, CEO at security firm Invincea. “Providers need to upgrade their information systems and architecture to adequately address the threat from remote exploitation. In addition they need to understand conventional IT security defenses are no match for the threat, and the consequences of a hack demand much higher grade of security than the conventional.”