Industrial control systems targeted by malicious attackers, research shows

A researcher uses a network of simulated water pump systems to monitor how frequently industrial control systems are attacked

Attackers are actively targeting Internet-connected industrial control systems (ICS) in an effort to compromise their operation, according to data collected from a global network of honeypot systems that simulate water pumps.

The ICS honeypot system, designed to attract attackers, was created by Kyle Wilhoit, a researcher from security firm Trend Micro. He shared some initial findings in March based on the system's original deployment in the U.S.

The researcher shared new data regarding attacks at the Black Hat security conference on Thursday and also released the tools for others to build and deploy similar systems.

Since March, he has made significant changes to the system architecture. He virtualized it and deployed it in additional countries, including Brazil, Russia, Ireland, Singapore, China, Japan and Australia.

The new architecture uses a tool called the Browser Exploitation Framework (BeFF) to inject JavaScript code into attackers' browsers if they break into the system and access secure areas.

The injection is not malicious in nature, but it allows the honeypot operator to obtain information about the attacker's computer, which significantly enhances the ability to attribute attacks, Willhoit said. The JavaScript code can perform Wi-Fi triangulation to determine the attacker's location and can gather information about his computer and local network, including the OS, computer name and IP address, he said.

Wilhoit has identified 74 attacks against the ICS honeypot systems, 10 of which can be considered critical and could have compromised the integrity of the water pump.

In one case, an attacker tried to change the water temperature in the pump to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and in two other cases, the attackers issued commands to shut down the water pump.

Overall, 58 percent of attacks originated from Russia, but all of them were non-critical in nature.

Attacks classified as non-critical would have not have severely affected the water pump, but they could have led to critical attacks in the future, the researcher said.

Five of the critical attacks originated from China, and one each from Germany, the U.K., France, Palestine and Japan.

The critical attacks were targeted in nature and the attackers behind them generally tried to manually identify vulnerabilities in the components of the simulated water pump system, Willhoit said.

Meanwhile, the individuals behind the non-critical attacks first performed port scans and then used automated vulnerability scanners or known ICS vulnerabilities to try to break in.

The goal of some of the critical attacks was probably espionage or reconnaissance, as attackers were actively monitoring the data coming from the system, the researcher said.

During the past few years, security researchers have identified a large number of vulnerabilities in various components of industrial control systems. However, real-world information on who might attack such systems, and how likely attacks are, has been limited.

The big takeaway from this research is that attacks against Internet-facing ICSs are occurring and some of them appear to be targeted, Wilhoit said. Many ICS engineers are likely not aware that this is happening, he said.

The researcher hopes the tools he released will help ICS owners build and deploy their own honeypots in order to see who's targeting them and why and what changes they need to make to protect their real systems.

The ICS world needs more security information sharing, Wilhoit said. Researchers and IT professionals are sharing good information in other fields of IT security and same thing needs to happen for ICS, especially in those areas that could be considered critical infrastructure, he said.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags intrusionKyle Wilhoittrend microsecurityblack hatphysical security

More about Trend Micro Australia

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Lucian Constantin

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 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

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place