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

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, but the post has since been removed.

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."

Read more about critical infrastructure in CSOonline's Critical Infrastructure section.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Texassecurityphysical securityU.S. Department of Homeland SecurityProtecting Industrial Control SystemssoftwarePhysical Security | Critical InfrastructureRichard Bejtlichresearch directorUnited StatesSCADA

More about Enterprise Management AssociatesRSA

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by George V. Hulme

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts