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."

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags SCADAcontrol systems

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?