Expert: Hackers penetrating control systems

One attack caused US deaths, a security consultant testified to the Senate

The networks powering industrial control systems have been breached more than 125 times in the past decade, with one resulting in U.S. deaths, a control systems expert said Thursday.

Joseph Weiss, managing partner of control systems security consultancy Applied Control Solutions, didn't detail the breach that caused deaths during his testimony before a U.S. Senate committee, but he did say he's been able to find evidence of more than 125 control systems breaches involving systems in nuclear power plants, hydroelectric plants, water utilities, the oil industry and agribusiness.

"The impacts have ranged from trivial to significant environmental damage to significant equipment damage to deaths," he told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "We've already had a cyber incident in the United States that has killed people."

At other times, Weiss has talked about a June 1999 gasoline pipeline rupture near Bellingham, Washington. That rupture spilled more than 200,000 gallons of gasoline into two creeks, which ignited and killed three people. Investigators found several problems that contributed to the rupture, but Weiss has identified a computer failure in the pipeline's central control room as part of the problem.

It could take the U.S. a long time to dig out from coordinated attacks on infrastructure using control systems, Weiss told senators. Damaged equipment could take several weeks to replace, he said. A coordinated attack "could be devastating to the U.S. economy and security," he said. "We're talking months to recover. We're not talking days."

The industrial control system industry is years behind the IT industry in protecting cybersecurity, and some of the techniques used in IT security would damage control systems, Weiss added. "If you penetration-test a legacy industrial control system, you will shut it down or kill it," he said. "You will be your own hacker."

Part of the problem is that there are only a handful of control systems suppliers, and their architectures and default passwords are common to each vendor, Weiss said. In addition, there are probably fewer than 100 experts in control system cybersecurity worldwide, and U.S. universities don't have curriculums focused on control system cybersecurity, he added.

Attacks are coming from outsiders, but also from employees or former employees, Weiss said. "I believe the threat is increasing not only because of nation states ... but because the economic downturn has created many disgruntled but knowledgeable antagonists," he said.

Weiss gave three examples of cases involving disgruntled employees, including a recent case in California, where an employee disabled the leak detection systems in three oil derricks off the coast.

Senators called for an increased focus on cybersecurity in the U.S. government and private industry. "It's very important for people to know that cybersecurity is not just about protecting our government networks from countries with terrorists or hackers who want our secrets," said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and committee chairman. "It's about protecting our nation's critical infrastructure from cyberattacks that could severely impact commerce and the economy that are absolutely devastating."

Too many U.S. residents don't think or know about the ongoing cyberattacks, Rockefeller added.

However, James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also called on Congress to focus on traditional IT security in addition to control systems. Right now, intellectual property in the U.S. is being compromised, and those losses will hurt the long-term competitiveness of the nation, he said.

While control systems represent a potential for attack, "we're under attack right now," Lewis said. "I worry more about the loss of information. Right now, we are being robbed by foreign entities of our most valuable technology, and we have to stop that."

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