SCADA Systems: Achilles Heel of Critical Infrastructure

SCADA systems are a crucial part of our economy--making them prime targets for attack

Our critical infrastructure is an attractive target for enemy nations, terrorist groups, or even run-of-the-mill cyber criminals, and many security experts believe that it is not remotely protected against cyber attacks. The SCADA systems that manage and control much of the critical infrastructure for the United States were not designed with security in mind, and are not engineered for an Internet-connected world.

SCADA systems are uniquely enticing because a successful attack could cripple a nation. The Stuxnet worm that targeted nuclear power capabilities in Iran contained a rootkit that could hijack the control and behavior of PLC (programmable logic controller) devices used for plant operations.

In a Wall Street Journal article Richard Clarke, former White House advisor on cyber security, warns that there is evidence that China has been actively probing and hacking the United States power grid. Clarke points out, "The only point to penetrating the grid's controls is to counter American military superiority by threatening to damage the underpinning of the U.S. economy. Chinese military strategists have written about how in this way a nation like China could gain an equal footing with the militarily superior United States."

Dr. Avishai, CTO of AlgoSec, recently discussed some of the challenges facing SCADA systems. Avishai notes, "In the old days, we worked with an ‘isolated network' assumption. The network operated with very simple communication protocols and over serial lines."

Avishai explains that SCADA networks were not designed with security in mind and can not differentiate between legitimate requests and malicious responses. SCADA systems were traditionally on isolated networks that would require an attacker to first gain physical access to the target facility.

"Hacking SCADA systems no longer requires physical access, just a network connection, a way to route packets to the logic controller and a way to bypass the traffic filters, which are all activities that hackers understand," proclaims Avishai.

Randy Abrams, director of technical education at ESET, agrees that SCADA systems have their weaknesses, but feels that the humans behind the networks, and social engineering attacks are the real weak point.

There are two very significant human factors that come into play according to Abrams.The first follows the points made by Dr. Avishai--the false assumption that SCADA systems are somehow protected because they're not connected to the Internet. The false belief in security by obscurity leaves these systems exposed to risk.

"The other human factor is social engineering," says Abrams. "We have seen countless spear-phishing attacks that have resulted in compromise of military and private industry systems. The recent disclosure of a spear-phishing attack against high ranking US and south Korean officials, as well as journalists and dissidents that resulted in people divulging the passwords to their Gmail accounts demonstrates how incredibly little people understand about the nature of phishing attacks and social engineering in general."

The critical infrastructure is called that for a reason--it is the infrastructure that is essential for our society and economy to function. Combine the security flaws inherent in the SCADA systems themselves, with the with weaknesses in human nature and vulnerability to social engineering attacks, and you have a potential recipe for disaster.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags network securityhackersfirewallssupervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA)applicationssecuritysoftwaredata protection

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

Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Matthew Stivala

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

The HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer is a great device that fits perfectly into my fast paced and mobile lifestyle. My first impression of the printer itself was how incredibly compact and sleek the device was.

Armand Abogado

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

Wireless printing from my iPhone was also a handy feature, the whole experience was quick and seamless with no setup requirements - accessed through the default iOS printing menu options.

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?