Control System Security Dilemmas

It’s fascinating to watch what’s unfolding in the Industrial Control System Security front these days. Digital Bond’s SCADA Security Portal is as entertaining as any (thanks to ArchestrAnaut for pointing it out for me).

A brief recap:

  • Stuxnet makes news even in the mainstream press
  • Siemens shrugs it off and does absolutely nothing about it
  • Security researchers, smelling smoke, start poking around PLC security and find it completely lacking
  • Details about wide open backdoors inserted into common PLC hardware has now been published online

Things are not moving in a positive direction either. Those security “researchers”, many of whom seem to be selling security solutions, are digging up ways to compromise PLCs and they’re posting all that information online. Now if this forces automation vendors to stop looking the other way and start taking security seriously, then I think it can only be a good move in the long term, but you have to admit it feels a little like a tire salesman throwing roofing nails on the road in front of his store.

All of this makes you wonder, what’s a small manufacturer to do? As always, businesses need to weigh the risks and the costs and act accordingly. This isn’t easy for the decision makers. On one side there’s enormous pressure to network all of the systems together to facilitate the fast flow of information between the ERP, MES, and Plant Floor layers, but on the other side, every interconnection increases the risk of catastrophic failure. I’ve personally seen Windows worms take down automation networks. In the next few years I’m certain we’re going to see worms that can jump from PLC to PLC and probably ones that can cross from Windows to PLC and back.

Properly segregating networks and then managing them is a big IT project. That means it needs scarce resources, and those resources aren’t making money for the company. Big manufacturers have enough cash flow (and have been bitten enough times) that they can allocate resources for this kind of project, but small manufacturers are a different story.

Small companies generally lack the specialists needed to implement such systems. Almost by definition, generalists serve in small companies and specialists gravitate towards large companies. Small companies can only implement commodity solutions (unless it’s part of their core business strength). That means that while we’re all worried about what might happen if a major utility or top tier manufacturer gets hit with an automation security breach, the fact is it’s more likely that small manufacturers will be the first ones hit by a fast-spreading generalized threat. The economic impact could be just as large… those small manufacturers are feeding parts up the supply chain, and in this just-in-time environment it doesn’t take much to cause a major interruption.

What’s the solution?

Short of the automation vendors waking up and making secure products, we need better (and less expensive) tools for securely connecting our PLCs. I hate to say it, but you can’t implement modern control systems without knowing the basics of network security, VLANs, and access control.

1 thought on “Control System Security Dilemmas

  1. AJ

    You definitely have the point here. Automation vendors must take their responsibility, instead of playing marketing games as “connect our PLC directly to the Internet and control your system worldwide” using plain text passwords as the only “security” means. It will hammer hard everyone, the only question in – when.

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