Cyberattacks get physical

Converged physical and IT security isn't just a trend, it's a necessity

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Layered Security

Photo by Michael Shay

It's a midwinter afternoon in the fictional New England town of Harborville, and things are falling apart. At City Hall, two computer systems containing sensitive data have been penetrated. The police department's 911 system is not working right and the computer-aided dispatch system is sending police on false calls.

Communications are down at the hospital, and false reports of fires and bioterrorism attacks are causing panic.

What do you do?

That was the opening scenario of a tabletop exercise done by the Dartmouth College Thayer School of Engineering at the recent GovSec Conference in Washington. The goal was to demonstrate how information technology problems can affect decisions and emergency responses.

'We have [voice-over-IP] phones we can't use,' a member of the hospital team said.
'If you are suspicious that hackers have compromised your network, how can you trust your e-mail?' the city hall team asked.

Hierarchies and chains of command fall apart when communications are interrupted and information can't be trusted, said Mark Stanovich, lead developer of the exercise.

Cyberattacks increasingly will be used to magnify the effect of physical attacks or hamper responses to them, said analysts from the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit.
'In the future, cybervulnerabilities will determine where physical attacks will take place,' said Scott Borg, director and chief economist of the US-CCU, in a GovSec presentation.

The US-CCU is a government-funded, independent research organization established in 2004 with a shoestring, four-month budget of $200,000 from the Homeland Security Department.

Meanwhile, many physical security and control systems are operated through IP networks, often with little thought given by their developers to IT security. On the other hand, physical access to elements of an IT system can help an intruder bypass IT security and manipulate it from the inside. Combining physical and IT security will be necessary to provide adequate protection to the country's critical infrastructure, Borg said.

'Physical security is becoming utterly dependent on cybersecurity,' he said, 'and cybersecurity is becoming utterly dependent on physical security. Handling these things separately is not going to be possible for very much longer and do a good job.'

'Huge security holes'

US-CCU originally was chartered to perform real-world assessments of the vulnerabilities and consequences of security breaches in the electrical power and health care sectors. It no longer is associated with DHS but continues to receive government funding for on-site surveys of critical infrastructure facilities.

'We keep finding huge security holes in companies that said they were compliant with ISO and other standards,' Borg said.

Many of the holes are in areas that fall between the IT and physical security organizations or where the areas overlap. In these areas, security on one side often can be circumvented on the other.

IP-enabled surveillance systems, for example, often can be accessed through the Internet or wireless networks to allow an outsider to manipulate the system, said John Bumgarner, US-CCU research director of security technology.

IP-enabled control systems offer avenues of attack or manipulation of physical systems. Physical authentication and access control systems, which often work with wireless chip readers, are vulnerable to interception so that information, including biometric templates, can be copied or spoofed.

It is difficult to determine how many attacks of this type have occurred, Borg said. Reports typically lag behind actual events, and this is a relatively new area of study.

However, hacker Web sites and discussion groups have a lot of chatter about these techniques, he said. Exploitation of control systems has become a hot topic in the past 18 months. The emphasis in the discussions often is on subverting or manipulating a system rather than shutting it down completely. 'It has been a long time since shutting something down has been a hot topic,' Borg said.

Much of the evidence of this activity is anecdotal. But 'we've seen a huge amount of intrusions,' he said. Supervisory control and data acquisition 'systems are getting a lot more attention than they used to. What we're seeing now is reconnaissance.'

Meanwhile, in Harborville, the multilayered attacks continue. The hospital finds that its inventories of medical supplies cannot be trusted, malfunctioning traffic signals are snarling traffic, and communications throughout the city remain unreliable. Then . . .

'Something went boom. Large explosion at the sports arena.'

'Yeah, like we couldn't see that coming. We've lost a command post. We've got to set up another one.'


'Well, not where the old one was.'

The hospital staff, without communications, is trying to confirm the rumors of the explosion. Finally, runners are sent to the police station and the hospital is advised to prepare for mass casualties.

At least the hospital should be able to handle it. It has 200 beds and only 100 casualties have been reported.

'That's 100 dead. The EMTs are reporting several hundred injured.'

And the hospital is already operating at 80 percent capacity.

'OK, maybe we're not so good. We've maxed out the hospital.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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