Simulated attack shows vulnerable US power infrastructure

A report this week on CNN that showed how a software vulnerability in a control system could be used to physically destroy power grid equipment refocused attention on an issue that some have been quietly trying to fix for several years.


The CNN segment, which aired Thursday, showed a turbine being reduced to a smoking, shuddering, metal spewing mess as the result of malicious code execution on the computer controlling the system.

The Idaho National Laboratory prepared the demonstration in March for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The simulated attack took advantage of a known software vulnerability - since fixed - in a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. The demonstration was designed to show how hard a well-executed digital attack could hit the nation's critical infrastructure.

Though no details are available on how exactly the attack was launched, the scenario it depicts and the outcome are pretty accurate, said Amit Yoran, CEO of network security monitoring vendor NetWitness. "I think the scenario is more realistic than a lot of academic papers on this topic have been.

"People have talked about how this is possible; now, we have a physical simulation," said Yoran, who is a former director of the National Cyber Security Division of the DHS.

At the same time, it would be wrong to conclude that all control systems are susceptible to such cyber attacks or that all attacks would have such drastic consequences, he said. "Just because this turbine was affected in such a dramatic way, it shouldn't imply that all turbines will be," Yoran said, noting that many have limiting technologies and mechanical governors designed to prevent the sort of meltdown depicted on TV. "The video is important. There is a lesson to be learned here. But it is one piece of information," and does not represent all possible eventualities.

The simulated attack shows the sort of damage that can be inflicted on utility infrastructure if a malicious attacker gains access to a control system, said Dale Peterson, CEO of SCADA security consultancy Digital Bond in Florida.

SCADA and industrial control systems, with their traditional reliance on proprietary networks and hardware, have long been considered immune to the kinds of cyber attacks that can plague corporate information systems.

Many SCADA systems typically run on segmented proprietary networks and hardware that are not directly accessible via the internet. As a result, gaining logical access to control systems from the outside can be more of a challenge compared to systems in most commercial companies. But for someone who does gain administrative access, SCADA systems - especially older ones - present several exploitable vulnerabilities, Peterson said.

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