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Control System Security and 2010

Looking back at the year 2010, there was one really interesting and important happening in the world of industrial control system security: Stuxnet.

There’s a lot of speculation about this computer worm, but let’s just look at the facts:

  • It required substantially more resources to create than a typical computer worm (some estimates put it around $1,000,000, if you figure 5 person-years and the cost to employ specialized programmers)
  • It targets Siemens WinCC software, so that it can infect Step 7 PLCs
  • It looks like it was specifically targeted at a single facility (based on the fact that it was targeting a specific PLC, and only specific brands of VFDs)
  • It was designed to do real physical damage to equipment
  • It was designed to propagate via USB memory sticks to make it more likely to spread inside industrial settings, and even updated itself in a peer-to-peer manner (new versions brought in from the outside could update copies already inside a secure network)

If your average computer worm is the weapon-equivalent a hatchet, Stuxnet is a sniper rifle. There is speculation that the intended target was either the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant or the Natanz Nuclear Facility, both in Iran, but what is known is that it has spread far and wide in other industrial networks. It’s been called the world’s first cyber super weapon.

What’s clear is that our industry’s relative ignorance when it comes to computer security has to end. Stuxnet proved the worst case, which is that a proprietary embedded PLC can successfully be the target of a computer worm.

I’ve been watching as more and more old-school vendors include Windows CE based devices as HMI components in their systems (like the PanelView Plus from Allen-Bradley). These are susceptible to the same kinds of threats that can infect Microsoft-based smartphones, and it takes a lot less than $1,000,000 to write one of those. It’s the kind some kid can put together in his basement for fun.

I’ve also seen (and even been pushing) a trend towards PC-based control. It’s nothing new, and I’ve seen PC-based control solutions out there for almost 10 years now, but it’s the networking that makes them vulnerable. In one facility about five years ago, I saw a PC-based control system completely taken down by a regular old computer worm. There were two mitigating causes in that case… first, the control system was on the same network as the main office network (the virus was brought in by an employee’s laptop that they connected at home), and secondly the vendor of the control software prohibited the customer from installing anti-virus software on the control system PC because they said it would void the warranty. I rarely see these same mistakes in new installations, but it does happen.

A couple of years ago I found a computer virus on an industrial PC with a VB6 application used as an HMI for a PLC/2. The PC in question was never connected to any network! The virus found its way to this computer over floppy disks and USB memory sticks.

Now if your facility is juicy enough that someone would spend $1,000,000 to take a shot at it, then you need specialized help. Stuxnet is a boon to security consultants because now they have a dramatic story to wave in the face of clients. On the other hand, most facilities need some kind of basic security measures.

  • Separate your industrial and office networks (if you need to move data from one to the other, then have a secure machine that can sit on both networks)
  • Make sure all machines automatically update their Windows Updates and their anti-virus definitions automatically, even if they’re on the industrial network
  • Change the default passwords on all devices and servers (including SQL Server’s SA password!)
  • Use different technologies in different layers (does your office network use Cisco managed switches? Consider using industrial managed switches from a different vendor in your industrial network)

Are you an integrator looking to expand your lines of business? Hire a computer security consultant and have them go knocking on the doors of your biggest customers with the Stuxnet story. You should be able to sell them a security assessment, and an action plan. Given the current security landscape, you’ll be doing them a big favour.

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