Hacks of municipal water, power services prompts DHS warning

Hackers using “readily available and generally free search tools” can gain access to municipal power and water systems via the Internet, a problem that can be exacerbated by the fact that plant operators might not know their systems are Internet-connected, the Homeland Security Department says. An FBI official recently said services in three U.S. cities have been hit.

DHS’ Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) is warning operators of water and power plants and other critical infrastructure to carefully audit their systems, even if they think they’re not Internet accessible, and take corrective steps.

The alert, which reinforces a similar warning issued in October 2010, comes on the heels of reports in November that a hacker gained access to a sewage treatment system in South Houston, Texas.


Related stories:

Why we’re unfit to wage cyber war

Feds confirm prisons vulnerable to Stuxnet-like attack


And at the recent Flemings Cyber Security Conference in London, an FBI official said that hackers had attacked Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems in three U.S. cities, the BBC reported.

"We just had a circumstance where we had three cities, one of them a major city within the [United States], where you had several hackers that had made their way into SCADA systems within the city," Michael Welch, deputy assistant director of the FBI's cyber division, told delegates at the conference, the BBC reported.

Welch said the intrusions were “an ego trip” for the hackers, but pointed out that real damage, such as dumping sewage in a lake or cutting off power, could have been done.

Fears of attacks against industrial control systems such as those of power and water plants have been heightened since the discovery in 2010 of the Stuxnet virus, which attacked uranium processing facilities in Iran.

Reports of several suspected hacks of such facilities in the United States cropped up in November. However, one recent report of a hack at a water plant in Illinois, which the state’s terrorism center initially attributed to foreign hackers, turned out to be just a burned-out water pump.

But despite the possibilities for false alarms, ICS-CERT says the threat is real. Its alert says researchers have found they can use search engines such as Shodan, Google and Every Routable IP Project (a project to connect every IP address on the Internet) to locate Internet-facing industrial controls systems. The warning gives give examples of researchers or others gaining access to systems via the Internet.

The hack of the South Houston system was carried out by a hacker who goes by “pr0f,” who told ThreatPost in an interview that he found the South Houston system using a custom-built scanner that looked for Siemens Simatic Human Machine Interface software.

Once he found the system, all he had to do was crack a three-character password to get an administrative account, ThreatPost reported.

ICS-CERT’s alert urges system operators to audit systems configurations to determine if they are vulnerable to these kinds of attacks and remove any default administrator-level user names and passwords.

Plant operators also can use the DHS Control Systems Security Program (CSSP) Cyber Security Evaluation Tool, the alert said. CSET is a free software tool that can help operators access their security posture, identify weaknesses and map their networks, ICS-CERT said.

“The use of readily available and generally free search tools significantly reduces time and resources required to identify Internet facing control systems,” ICS-CERT said. “In turn, hackers can use these tools to easily identify exposed control systems, posing an increased risk of attack. Conversely, owners and operators can also use these same tools to audit their assets for unsecured Internet facing devices.”

The alert recommends a series of defensive measures:

• Minimize network exposure for all control system devices. Control system devices should not directly face the Internet.

• Locate control system networks and devices behind firewalls and isolate them from the business network.

• If remote access is required, use secure methods such as virtual private networks, recognizing that VPNs are only as secure as the connected devices.

• Remove, disable or rename any default system accounts wherever possible.

• Create account lockout policies to reduce the risk from brute forcing attempts.

• Create policies requiring the use of strong passwords.

• Monitor the creation of administrator level accounts by third-party vendors.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above