A power plant hack that anybody could use

Researcher Dillon Beresford has developed code that can take down Siemens industrial systems. But should he release it?

NSS Labs researcher Dillon Beresford
NSS Labs researcher Dillon Beresford

The night before the start of this week's Black Hat hacker conference here in Las Vegas, security researcher Dillon Beresford gave a demonstration to a small audience in his room at Caesar's Palace. The topic: how a hacker could take over the Siemens S7 computers that are used to control engines, machines and turbines in tens of thousands of industrial facilities.

It was a preview of the talk he was set to give Wednesday, and Beresford seemed both nervous and relieved to be finally talking to the handful of reporters and industry and government officials in the room. A few months ago it wasn't clear when or if he'd ever be able to go public with his research. Concerned that his research could be misused, he pulled out of an earlier conference to give Siemens more time to fix the problems he'd uncovered. Even now, after months of work with Siemens and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, coordinating patch after patch for many of the bugs he's found, Beresford can't say everything he knows.

But clearly, he knows quite a lot. The question is, how much will he make public?

The NSS Labs researcher said he's found ways to bypass the S7's security measures and read and write data into the computer's memory -- even when the system has password protection enabled. He can steal sensitive information from the systems, he said. And on one model, the S7 300, he found a command shell, apparently left in the system's firmware by Siemens engineers, that he can connect to and use to run commands on the system.

After poking around for a bit he discovered a hard-coded username and password that allowed him access to a Unix-like shell program on the systems, where he can run his own commands: Username: basisk; password: basisk.

This shell is a "back door" to the system that could be misused by an attacker, Beresford said.

monkey image in firmware
The NSS Labs researcher found this image in the firmware of a Siemens S7 300 PLC. It reads, "Not hearing, not working, just..."

He also discovered dancing monkeys. This goofy graphic of four dancing monkeys was apparently an Easter egg -- a software developer's version of graffiti, left for other geeks to discover -- stuck in the S7 300's firmware.

The demo wasn't much to look at. The S7s are like futuristic grey shoeboxes with green LED lights on them. Smoking a cigarette, Beresford would type into his laptop and one by one, the machines would turn off. But considering that each one of those machines could be running a nuclear centrifuge or an elevator, the demonstration held everyone's attention.

The government official in the room Tuesday night -- a contractor from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team -- didn't want to be quoted. Neither did Tim Roxey, a staffer with the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the nonprofit corporation chartered with helping to keep the U.S. supply of electricity online.

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