4 lessons from the Springfield, Ill. SCADA cyberattack

The water plant attack was minor, but more are coming, security experts say

The recent cyberattack on a public water utility in Springfield, Ill. has stoked considerable concerns about the vulnerability of U.S. critical infrastructure equipment.

The attack destroyed a pump at the facility when someone using a computer with an IP address based in Russia gained access to the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system controlling the pump.

Experts in the industrial control systems arena say that, while that attack was relatively inconsequential and not unsurprising given the vulnerabilities that exist, it may be a harbinger of things to come.

Here are four lessons from the incident, which is still under investigation:

Information sharing is critical

Though an initial report by the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center called the incident a public water district cyber intrusion, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other agencies that share information on such incidents have so far been relatively quiet about what happened. That led to speculation about the nature of the attack, how serious it was, and what the motives might have been. Some even question whether the pump could have failed in the manner reported in the incident report.

The water pump at the Springfield utility is supposed to have burned out after attackers used their access to the SCADA system to cycle the pump off and on continuously. Typically that should not have happened, said L.W. Brittian, a SCADA system consultant and training expert. "Rapid cycling of a large pump motor should not, by itself, have been enough to burn a pump motor up," Brittian said. While turning a pump motor on and off over and over can cause it to overheat. temperature and pressure control mechanisms built into it should have tripped, taking it safely offline.

"The SCADA system may have been accessible on the Internet, so someone could come in and get the pump to run and they could ask it to stop," Brittian said. "They could tell it to start and stop every three seconds until something happens," he said. But what they would not have been able to access over the Internet is the overload relay that is provided to protect the motor from overloading and burning up.

Even if hackers had accessed the operating controls, it's doubtful they could have also accessed the safety controls, he said. "We need more details of exactly what happened."

SCADA systems are easy to hack

A vast majority of the systems used to control critical equipment at places like power stations, nuclear power plants and water treatment facilities are inherently insecure. In many cases, anyone with logical access to an industrial control system or programmable logic controller can upload firmware on it without authentication. Passwords are often hardcoded into systems. And many systems have administrative backdoors and contain very basic buffer overflow errors.

Such vulnerabilities were acceptable for a long time because SCADA systems were not really connected to the outside world; An attacker usually needed physical access to a SCADA system to compromise it.

That's changed over the last few years. A growing number of SCADA systems are connected to the Internet, making them much more vulnerable to attack from external sources. Last week, a hacker named pr0f claimed he hacked into a SCADA system at a water utility in South Houston by overcoming a three-character password that was used to protect the system.

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