14 November, 2006

Control Systems


I think it is time to revive one of my pre blog writings trying to get people interested in security issues around SCADA systems. If you want to know what they are and why they matter take the time to read this. It is a big problem and getting bigger. If you are already into the topic it might give you some catch phrases and other angles for the non initiated. A little Campy but I didn't write it for a blog.

Control systems are everywhere. From nuclear plants to elevators, automobile manufacturing robots to remote surgery, multibillion dollar offshore oil facilities to children’s toys, computers are controlling more things every day. Automated control systems are not a new phenomenon. In the first decade of the 1800’s punch cards were used to operate weaving looms running relatively primitive programs using mechanical interlocks and stops to control the equipment. Digital computerized systems have been around for more than a half century and short range radio monitoring and control existed well before wireless became a common term in the IT world. These systems go by many different names, Automated Control Systems (ACS), SCADA, DCS and Process Control Systems are among the most common. Ultimately what they do is what defines them as a separate category. Whatever the name, the defining function of control systems is their ability to directly physically manipulate the real world.

In the last decade there has been a revolution in the automated control world. Mirroring the advancements of the information technology world, ACS have become more integrated, easier to connect to, and standardized.

Many systems are now directly or indirectly connected to an IP network that is ultimately connected to the internet. The key control and programming point of these systems is often run as an application on one of the common Operating Systems.

This standardization and interconnectivity has had a dramatic positive effect on the efficiency, safety and ease of implementation of these systems.

Because these systems are often more complicated than other computing systems, have a higher capital cost than other computing systems, and are tied to physical infrastructure, the adoption of the newest generation lags the IT and internet world by 8 to 10 years. This puts the ACS world right in the middle of the turn of the millennium IT environment. The same paradigms apply. There are and will be dramatic impacts on business models. Irrational exuberance abounds. A huge amount of money is being spent and saved.

Finally the security challenges of the early internet days are now being felt in systems that control our power, water distribution, oil pipelines and wastewater removal plants.

This final point cannot be overstated. The same viruses, spam, pop-ups and botnets that give the IT world and the average home PC user headaches can affect the power supply to your house and business and change the way that the natural gas pipeline in the back of the neighborhood works.

There are two key questions that define the debate about how or even whether to direct resources to protecting ACS. Can control systems be accessed and controlled by unwanted individuals? What will/can happen if they do access them?

The answer the first question is a direct and simple yes. Not only can these systems be accessed but they have been accessed. If a system is connected to any other IT or telecomm system then it can be reached and controlled.

The answer to the second is less direct. It depends. It depends on what the ACS is controlling, how much and how fast a human can get involved and most importantly how the underlying system integrates into the process being controlled. In most cases production can be stopped or efficiency impacted. In some cases people can be hurt or killed, large amounts of environmental harm can occur, and huge amounts of money can be lost.

A number of high profile incidents are easy to find.

The California power grid was compromised and service was almost interrupted, waste water has fouled beaches, David Beckham’s car was unlocked, started and stolen twice, and the slammer worm was found in the systems of a nuclear plant.

From the silly to the terrifying, compromises of automated controls systems are occurring daily. Ultimately these incidents show the public side of the impact but the real threats can be subtle. Control systems are not designed to identify abuse and hacking. Until recently identification of attacks specifically directed at ACS was not available or possible. In many organizations the control systems are not located on a segment of the network that allows easy differentiation of unwanted traffic. The result of these and other weaknesses in existing architectures is that the real level of compromise and therefore the threat and risk levels are difficult or impossible to determine for most organizations without the acquisition of greater information and understanding.

People are doing things to fix it but more needs to be done and faster.


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