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Nearly two-dozen bugs easily found in critical infrastructure software

Nov 27, 20123 mins
Application SecurityCritical InfrastructureData Center

All of the bugs were previously unknown security holes

In the time it took to cook a Thanksgiving turkey, a researcher found nearly two-dozen vulnerabilities in software used in industrial control systems found in power plants, airports and manufacturing facilities.

All of the bugs were previously unknown security holes, Aaron Portnoy, co-founder and vice president of research at Exodus Intelligence, said Monday. Portnoy plans to report the vulnerabilities to ICS-CERT, a group within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that works with vendors and security experts in reporting security flaws in industrial control systems (ICS).

Weaknesses in ICS security are a well-known problem. A lot of the technology in use today was developed before computer systems were connected to the Internet. In addition, ICS software is typically used in internal networks that are not suppose to be accessible from the outside.

Those barriers have broken down over time as new Internet-enabled technology has been introduced. If compromised, such systems can sometimes provide hackers with an entry into internal networks. The Stuxnet malware used to damage Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010 demonstrated the vulnerability of Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems, a kind of ICS.

Portnoy downloaded SCADA software Thanksgiving morning from Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric, Indusoft, RealFlex and Eaton. Within the first seven minutes, he found the first exploitable zero-day vulnerability. Within a few hours, he had found 23 flaws. Seven of them could be used to run code from a remote location.

A lot of the software was developed roughly five to 10 years ago using Microsoft compilers and tools built before security was incorporated as part of the development process. As a result, the code was easily exploitable.

“I was a bit surprised at that, given the criticality that you can have if someone was to hack into a system that would control infrastructure hardware,” Portnoy said.

The software analyzed by Portnoy had many functions, but some could be used to monitor and control hardware within power plants, water filtration systems, airports, manufacturing facilities and other critical infrastructure. Portnoy first disclosed the vulnerabilities in his blog

[In depth: The future of SCADA-control security]

The snail’s pace with which vendors have been moving to patch SCADA software has led some security experts to publicly disclose vulnerabilities before notifying the software developers in order to spur quicker action. For example, security company Digital Bond launched a research effort called Project Basecamp that is dedicated to exposing ICS security weaknesses

The DHS has favored legislation to address ICS security. The 2012 Cyber Security Act failed to come to a vote in the Senate in August and remains in limbo. President Obama is expected to issue an executive order to implement the act’s provisions that would not need congressional approval, such as directing federal agencies to share cyber-threat information with companies operating critical infrastructure.

In the meantime, some companies have turned finding SCADA vulnerabilities into a business. For example, ReVuln recently released an online video marketing previously unknown vulnerabilities it found in software from General Electric Schneider Electric, Kaskad, ABB/Rockwell, Eaton and Siemens. ReVuln discloses the zero-day flaws only to its customers.

The ReVuln video is what motivated Portnoy to take a look at SCADA software himself. His findings have led him to consider selling a SCADA vulnerability intelligence service, similar to what his company provides for enterprise software. Exodus hands over vulnerability details to affected vendors.

“After the results of this little bit of research I did while waiting for a turkey to cook, my team is going to take an active interest in finding more SCADA vulnerabilities to provide to our customers,” he said.