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As a licensed P.Eng., I recently received a copy of a draft version of a document regarding engineering practices for the design of safety critical software. It seemed to be well thought out and written, but one of the last statements caught me by surprise. It basically said that your design should prevent Stuxnet-like attacks.

I think it’s great that the profession is starting to take this stuff seriously, but I was a bit shocked at the implication of this document. Primarily I was concerned because Stuxnet was nothing like an ordinary attack. Defending against it would be like defending your office building against a laser guided bomb. Stuxnet was a nation-state-backed attack with huge funding and resources, going after a military/industrial target.

What does that mean for us practicing engineering in, say, the automotive industry? Do we just get to brush the whole cybersecurity thing aside because a Stuxnet-like attack against our facility has absolutely zero chance of ever being launched? It doesn’t seem like that’s what the document was trying to say.

In fact, is Stuxnet even a relevant example for “Safety Critical Software”? Did Stuxnet actually affect any safety critical systems, like a Safety PLC? All it did was damage equipment. Was anyone hurt? Was anyone in danger of being hurt? I guess I just disagree with the use of Stuxnet as an example here.

That’s not to say cybersecurity doesn’t need some attention from our profession. In particular, consider the case of so-called “Safety PLCs”. Here you have a device, typically sitting on some kind of network, definitely responsible for safety critical systems. There are at least 2 pieces of software installed on a Safety PLC: the firmware (the operating system, communication system, and runtime of the device) and the user-configurable logic that you download when you’re programming the system. Compromise of either of these pieces of software certainly poses a grave risk to human safety.

The user-configurable logic is supposed to be password protected. This is one step up from normal PLCs which rarely offer any kind of authentication. Now, when TUV, or whoever, is certifying these devices, they are definitely checking that once it’s locked, you can’t update the user-configurable software without a password. In fact, TUV has access to the design, so I *hope* someone there is well versed in cyber security and knows what they’re talking about. For instance, if it was found that authentication was being done in the programming software (client application) and not on the device itself, it would be completely useless security, because someone could easily bypass it. But let’s assume that nobody building these things is doing anything that blatantly wrong.

So even if the client/device protocol is rock solid, is the firmware bulletproof? I think this is unlikely. Every time a security researcher runs even the most basic of security audits against PLCs they usually find tons of obvious exploits. You have to realize that most of these devices are just embedded computers running off-the-shelf real-time operating systems like VxWorks. Usually it’s using the standard VxWorks networking protocols, which are sometimes known to have vulnerabilities (in certain versions) and are unfortunately rarely updated in the field. That’s not even counting deliberate backdoors and debug code left in the software. Does TUV do a security audit of every design? Maybe, but I doubt it. Even if they do, are they doing repeated security audits against older devices? When new vulnerabilities are found in these embedded operating systems that impact existing devices, are they requiring them to be recalled? I’ve never heard of such things.

I’m pretty sure the only reason we haven’t heard about this yet is because even security researchers who’ve woken up to the concept of PLCs and SCADA systems in the past 2 years still have no idea that Safety PLCs actually exist. I don’t think it’ll be too long until they find out.

Designing a device like this that’s intrinsically secure against hacking seems almost impossible to me. Whatever software module is responsible for receiving the user-configurable safety program and storing it in the persistent memory of the device is necessarily network-facing. Any vulnerability in that communication module could be exploited, and then you have the ability to bypass all the security protocols on the device, and write whatever user-configurable safety program you want.

So if this document says we have to design our Safety Critical systems to withstand a Stuxnet-like attack, and all the Safety PLCs we could use are likely vulnerable via communication module software exploits, and even firewalls and airgaps don’t seem to be able to defend against this kind of attack (just ask the employees of the Natanz facility in Iran), then where does that leave us? Is a P.Eng. supposed to just throw up their hands and say “sorry, it can’t be done?” Not likely.


Back in November I published a blog post about Finding Internet-Connected Industrial Automation Devices and one of the scariest things I found was a wind turbine in Oklahoma with no apparent authentication.

Recently Dan Tentler took this several steps further and posted his video from the LayerOne 2012 security conference, where he shows you a vast array of non-secure devices connected to the internet, much of which can interact physically with the real world, including control systems. Here’s his extremely fascinating video, and it’s worth watching all 45 minutes (note that he also has a screenshot of the Endurance Wind Turbine interface that I found in my original post):



Safe(r) Data Collection from a PLC

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the dangers of connecting automation equipment to networks, and yet there are significant pressures to do so. Of course, I don’t ever think that you should take a PLC and put it on an internet accessible IP address, but it’s certainly common practice to connect industrial automation equipment to internal LANs to facilitate data collection. People in the front office need to push production planning information down to the production floor, and they need real-time data on what’s going on (not to mention for historical data logging, historians, etc.).

It’s all too common to throw a PLC on the same network as your front office, and I’ve seen it blow up. What happens is something invariably goes wrong on the office network (someone plugs two ports together on the switch in the boardroom, or someone brings in an infected music player and plugs it in, or the DNS server at head-office goes down and the local DNS doesn’t work correctly… I’ve seen a lot). However, you want your machines to keep going when this happens.

This is all made worse now that (a) industrial automation equipment is more commonly based on off-the-shelf commodity hardware and software (e.g. windows PCs) and (b) the people writing malware can actually spell PLC now. Up to this point there’s been some form of security through obscurity.

If you have a local IT staff that’s on the ball, you really should be getting them to handle the network layout. On the other hand, if you’re in a small facility with limited resources, there’s a lot you can do by making some simple design choices that will go a long way towards improving the reliability and security of your systems.

Most automation cells now come with an Ethernet switch already built-in. Typically this is an industrial spec. DIN-rail mounted one. It’s not fancy, but it’s supposed to survive in a panel. These Ethernet switches are there to connect your PLC to your HMI, and increasingly to connect your PLC to Ethernet-based I/O like Ethernet/IP, etc. The common (and wrong) thing to do is to drop a network cable from your plant network to your panel and plug it right into this Ethernet switch. This creates some technical problems right off the bat:

The automation devices typically have fixed IP addresses (I personally prefer this because it means these devices aren’t dependent upon an external DNS or DHCP server – two less dependencies are good). Chances are that these IP addresses won’t work on your plant network, so you have to manage those IPs at the plant level. You’re opening yourself up to someone with the wrong IP on their laptop pouncing on your PLC’s IP address, and then bam, your machine is down.

A much better way is to place some kind of Router with NAT between the plant network and the machine’s Ethernet Switch:

Now if you’re just a little manufacturer with two machines out back and your data-collection link isn’t critical, you can probably get away with one of those home routers from Best Buy that you’d use to connect your laptop and your desktop at home to your cable modem. Note that it doesn’t need to be wireless, and you’re probably better off if it isn’t. The way you hook it up is to connect the Internet (Uplink) port on the router to the plant network and run a cable from one of the ports on the LAN side to the existing Ethernet switch in the machine. If your data needs to be a bit more reliable, consider buying some kind of Cisco router with NAT capability (but you’ll be going from the $50 range to many hundreds of dollars – your choice).

Now, when you configure it, you want to make sure that you turn off the port forwarding function, the DMZ function, disallow remote administration, and block all anonymous internet traffic (these should be default settings, but it’s good to check). Also, make sure the router’s local IP address doesn’t conflict with the PLC’s and HMI’s, and make sure they have the same subnet. Typically you’ll want to either turn off DHCP on the local side, or limit it to a range that won’t conflict with the fixed IPs. DHCP is handy when you connect your laptop to the programming port. Now what you’ve done is made it somewhat invisible from the plant side. Some piece of malware scanning for devices on your plant network should just see a black hole.

Now on the PLC side, you can now initiate a connection to the data collection server even though the data collection server can’t connect to the PLC (in the same way that your home computer can connect to Google, but Google can’t get to your PC – theoretically). Note that a piece of malware on your data collection server or on one of the routers/switches in your plant network could intercept this communication, and own your PLC, but at least you’ve significantly reduced the surface area of attack. Not perfect, but reasonable at this time, depending on the sensitivity of your equipment. I’m assuming you’re not enriching uranium or providing drinking water to my community.

(I’m going to be talking specifically about Allen-Bradley products now – sorry.)

So how do you get the data from the PLC to the data collection server? In the old days you’d have some software on the server like RSSQL, and it used a product like RSLinx Enterprise and as far as I know, it initiated the connection to the PLC. That won’t work in this case. Sometimes you’d throw an OPC server in there, and have some kind of historian that would log tags to a database. That OPC server, obviously, needs to be able to initiate a connection to the PLC. To use a router with NAT, you’d need to port-forward from the router to the PLC (or to the OPC server if it was inside the machine network). That’s undoing a lot of our protection.

What you need to do is initiate the connection from the PLC, and have the Data Collection computer act as a Server. One way to do this is with a 3rd party Ethernet card, like this MVI56-GEC card from Prosoft for the ControlLogix line. I have used that in the past to connect to a server, but it involves a lot of ugly PLC coding. It’s your only option if you have to conform to someone else’s protocol though.

If you just want to write data directly into a SQL database, there are 3rd party products that will let you do this (basically a SQL Server connector card).

But there is an option without buying any new hardware. The ControlLogix/CompactLogix lines can send Unsolicited CIP messages, and you can find products that can receive these messages in the PC world, like CimQuest’s NET.LOGIX product. It can act as a server and receive data directly from the PLC – either individual tags, or even arrays of UDTs. The code on both ends is relatively simple, so all you have to pay for is the NET.LOGIX runtime license, which is cheaper than the hardware alternatives. Note that you can also do this with PLC5 and SLC500 devices, though there’s some more effort involved.

I hope that’s enlightening. This is by no means a perfect solution, but it’s reasonable for now. It doesn’t plug the laptop hole (the programming laptop is probably still your #1 vector for malware to get into your machine network). It’s susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks between the router and the data collection server. It’s susceptible to exploitable bugs in the router’s firmware. Beware and use your own judgement.

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Completing the trilogy of ICS-security related blog posts, a hacker recently demonstrated how easy it was to find and log in to an internet-facing SCADA system using for water management in a town in Texas. From the article on threatpost:

The hacker, using the handle “pr0f” took credit for a remote compromise of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems used by South Houston, a community in Harris County, Texas. Communicating from an e-mail address tied to a Romanian domain, the hacker told Threatpost that he discovered the vulnerable system using a scanner that looks for the online fingerprints of SCADA systems. He said South Houston had an instance of the Siemens Simatic human machine interface (HMI) software that was accessible from the Internet and that was protected with an easy-to-hack, three character password.

For those of us who design, build, and deploy systems like this, let’s ask ourselves what would happen if a serious incident happened and significant equipment damage was done, or worst case, people were seriously injured or killed. Don’t you think the people who worked on the system would end up in court (if not in criminal court, then at least in civil court)?

When in doubt, don’t sit these things directly on the internet. There are lots of secure remote access products available (Google for “VPN”). It’s worth it.

Joe Weiss recently reported on the possible hacking of a public water SCADA system, apparently in Illinois. This attack, if it was an attack, caused damage to a pump by turning it on and off repeatedly.

It seems obvious that this situation is going to be repeating itself more and more. If you’re a company with industrial control systems, or you provide control system services, now’s a great time to start thinking about your control system security strategy. Do you have the necessary skills on staff? If not, where are you going to source them from?

I think most people in our industry realize you shouldn’t connect industrial automation devices to the internet, but just in case you happen to think otherwise, here’s a quick explanation why (this is old news, by the way).

You may believe that things connected to the internet are relatively anonymous. There’s no web page linking to them, so how is Google going to find them, right?

It turns out it’s relatively easy to find devices connected to the internet, and it’s kind of like the old movie WarGames where the lead character, played by Matthew Broderick, programmed his computer to dial every phone number in a specific block (555-0001, 555-0002, etc.) and record any where a modem answered. That was called “war-dialing”. In the age of the internet, you just start connecting to common port numbers (web servers are on port 80, etc.) on one IP address at a time, and logging what you find. This is called port-scanning.

It turns out that you don’t even have to do this yourself. One free service called SHODAN does this for you, and records everything it finds at the common port numbers (web servers, FTP servers, SSH daemons, etc.) and lets you search it just like Google. It turns out that (a) most modern industrial equipment is including embedded web servers and/or FTP servers to allow remote maintenance, and (b) most web servers or FTP servers respond with some kind of unique “banner” when you connect to them, announcing who or what they are.

So, if you don’t believe that you shouldn’t be putting industrial automation equipment on the internet, here’s a little experiment you can run:

  1. Take a ControlLogix with an ENBT card and hook it directly to the internet, so it has a real IP address.
  2. Wait a couple of days.
  3. See if your IP address shows up on this SHODAN search page.

You could try the same thing with a Modicon M340.

This query for Phoenix Contact devices is particularly scary, as one of the links is a wind turbine! I was a bit scared once I opened it (it opens a publicly accessible Java applet that’s updating all the data in real-time), so I closed it. There was no password or anything required to open the page. At least the button that says “PLC Config.” appeared to be grayed out. Let’s hope that means it’s protected by some kind of password… and that it’s hardened better than every single major corporation’s website was this year.

Just want to say thanks to DigitalBond for pointing out this SHODAN search for all Advantech/Broadwin WebAccess deployments around the world too.




Stuxnet: Anatomy of a Computer Virus

This interesting video about Stuxnet popped up on my Boxee Box today, and I thought I’d share it:


To start with, even PC security is pretty bad. Most programmers don’t seem to know the basic concepts for securely handling passwords (as the recent Sony data breach shows us). At least there are some standards, like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard.

Unfortunately, if PC security is a leaky bucket, then automation system security about as watertight as a pasta strainer. Here are some pretty standard problems you’re likely to find if you audit any small to medium sized manufacturer (and most likely any municipal facility, like, perhaps, a water treatment plant):

  • Windows PCs without up-to-date virus protection
  • USB and CD-rom (removable media) ports enabled
  • Windows PCs not set to auto-update
  • Remote access services like RDP or Webex always running
  • Automation PCs connected to the office network
  • Unsecured wireless access points attached to the network
  • Networking equipment like firewalls with the default password still set
  • PLCs on the office network, or even accessible from the outside!

All of these security issues have one thing in common: they’re done for convenience. It’s the same reason people don’t check the air in their tires or “forget” to change their engine oil. People are just really bad at doing things that are in their long term best interest.

Unfortunately, this security issue is becoming an issue of national security. Some have said there’s a “cyber-cold-war” brewing. After the news about Stuxnet, it’s pretty clear the war has turned “hot”.

I’m usually not a fan of regulations and over-reaching standards, but the fact is the Japanese didn’t build earthquake resistant buildings by individual choice. They did it because the building code required it. Likewise, I’ve seen a lot of resistance to the OSHA Machine Guarding standards because it imposes a lot of extra work on Control System Designers, and the companies buying automation, but I’m certain that we’re better off now that the standards are being implemented.

It’s time for an automation network security standard. Thankfully there’s one under development. ISA99 is the Industrial Automation and Control System Security Committee of ISA. A couple of sections of the new standard have already been published, but it’s not done yet. Also, you have to pay ISA a ransom fee to read it. I don’t think that’s the best way to get a standard out there and get people using it. I also think it’s moving very slowly. We all need to start improving security immediately, not after the committee gets around to meeting a few dozen more times.

I wonder if you could piece together a creative-commons licensed standard based on the general security knowledge already available on the internet…

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More about Stuxnet, on TED

I’ve been enjoying a lot more TED recently now that I can stream it directly to our living room HDTV on our Boxee Box. Today it surprised me with a talk by Ralph Langner called “Cracking Stuxnet: A 21st Century Cyber Weapon”. I talked about Stuxnet before, but this video has even more juicy details. If you work with PLCs, beware; this is the new reality of industrial automation security:

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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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