Expert: Basic hacks can compromise industrial control systems

Industrial control systems for dams, power plants, chemical plants and the like can be hacked with simple phishing attacks.

Atlanta -- Sophisticated attacks like Stuxnet aren't necessary to compromise industrial control systems for dams, power plants, chemical plants and the like. Rather, simple phishing attacks followed up by using tools that are easily available through Metasploit will do the trick, security pros were told at a conference in Atlanta this week.

Even with firewalls in place and buffering access to control devices through a server protected in a DMZ, simple-to-execute attacks succeed, said Chris Shipp, a contractor who is director of cyber security for the U.S. Department of Energy, Strategic Petroleum Reserve, in a talk to (ISC)² Security Congress. Shipp stressed that he was speaking as an independent security professional, not as a DoE representative.

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Shipp says he's seen such attacks work more than once in real life situations, and the problem is more worrisome because it's been shown through Stuxnet and other sophisticated attacks that groups with extensive resources are at work.

For systems that can't be upgraded readily, the best defense is constant penetration testing to find weaknesses and adopting new architectures that are less vulnerable.

Some facilities Shipp has seen actually had firewalls in place to protect the network, but they were configured to allow any traffic in and out.

The root of the problem is that many of the control systems are connected to facilities' business networks and therefore the Internet. This makes the switches, gates and valves being controlled remotely accessible for billing, inventory control and patching. It also makes them accessible for remote attacks, Shipp says

Networking gear within these facilities has moved from proprietary software to Windows in many cases. This means more hackers understand the environment, increasing the number of potential attackers, Shipp says.

In a demonstration, the contractor showed how an attack could be carried out even in a network that routed access to its control system through a secured server. It started with gaining control of a business workstation via a phishing attack that tricks a user into clicking on a link to a malicious Web site that downloads malware.

That was followed up with using several tools within Metasploit to grab passwords and screenshots of the victim's machine and to install a key logger. It also installed a shell that carried out commands from the hacker machine and using that, revealed machines that the victim's workstation was connected to. That included the secured server, which connected to the control network.

Shipp established a route from the attacker PC through the compromised workstation to the secured server to the control network. In the demonstration, he showed how the attacking machine could turn on fans and lights on a piece of hardware.

The speaker recommended that security architects at sites using industrial control systems follow National Institute of Standards and Technology guidelines for such systems.

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