Utility hack led to security overhaul

Apprehending a notorious hacker rarely involves a car chase or a team of dedicated private investigators, but in the case of Vitek Boden, life imitated a Hollywood script.

Boden had waged a three-month war against the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system of Maroochy Water Services in Australia beginning in January 2000, which saw millions of gallons of sewage spill into waterways, hotel grounds and canals around the Sunshine Coast suburb. He was caught only after a team of private investigators hired by Maroochy Water Services alerted police to his location.

After a brief police pursuit from the Sunshine Coast towards Brisbane, Boden was run off the road. In his car was the specialized proprietary SCADA equipment he had used to attack the system, and a laptop; however, it was a piece of $18 cable that ultimately led to his downfall.

Grounds for charges were slim, but the handmade cable showed he had the technical capability to hack the Scada system.

The laptop found in his car contained enough messages to prove he sent commands to disrupt various pump stations and that, combined with proprietary radio equipment and specialized cable, was enough to find him guilty of what has been dubbed the first case of critical infrastructure hacking in Australia.

Speaking at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference on Queensland's Gold Coast yesterday, Mark Tripcony, operations coordinator at Maroochy Water Service, said initially they thought the disruptions to their pumping station were due to a neighboring SCADA system or poorly implemented software until late one night it became clear that some 140 sewage pumping stations were at the mercy of a hacker.

"We eventually annihilated all the little things we thought might be causing faults, which were excessive station alarms, pumps running continually or being turned off, software configuration settings changing.

"But one night around 11 p.m., a systems engineer was changing configurations in pumping stations and immediately realized they were being changed back. ... This happened for about half an hour and we then realized we were being hacked and had to catch the culprit," Tripcony said, adding that at one stage Vitek had turned off every single alarm in their system and sent sewage running through the drains in a neighboring suburb.

"We worked out he had to be within a 25-mile radius, but one night we had not seen any evidence of hacking until he came on about 6.30 a.m. We had private investigators put cars along all the bridges and overpasses from the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane, because we knew the description of his car and knew he would be driving past. The investigators waited until they saw him on the highway and contacted police to intercept the car.

"When police went to intercept him, he did a runner; the police then ran him off the road and found a car full of proprietary gear. No one had seen him hack our systems, but from his laptop we were able to find the last recorded event and messages sent which exactly matched our SCADA radio monitoring systems."

Vitek was arrested, charged and found guilty on 30 charges of computer hacking, theft and causing environmental damage and jailed for just over two years.

Maroochy Water Services had earlier had to "let it slip" to the authorities they believed they were the victims of a hacking attack, because the Environmental Protection Authority was trying to prosecute them.

Since the attack, Maroochy Water Service has spent upwards of $55,309 changing every physical lock for pumping stations; it has also implemented strict access key controls and adopted further auditing procedures.

This story, "Utility hack led to security overhaul" was originally published by Computerworld Australia.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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