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Analysis Utility companies are been urged to review cyber security risks as the industry moves over from proprietary technologies to cheaper Windows-based systems. Attendees at an Industrial Cyber Security Conference in London on Tuesday 15 March were told that the control systems of utilities are becoming open to the kinds of attacks that bedevil corporate systems, such as computer worms and DDoS attacks, as power and water companies embrace the net.

What's the evidence for this? PA Consulting and Symantec, the joint organisers of the event and not exactly disinterested parties, cite an Australian case where a disgruntled ex-employee, Vitek Boden, hacked into a water control system and flooded the grounds of a hotel with million of gallons of sewage in March and April 2000. In Russia, malicious crackers managed to take control of a gas pipeline run by Gazprom for around 24 hours in 1999. Then there's a case where the Slammer worm affected the operation of the corporate network at Ohio's inactive Davis-Besse nuclear plant and disabled a safety monitoring system for nearly five hours in January 2003.

Using this, and other largely anecdotal evidence, PA and Symantec paints a picture of critical systems rife for attack. There was a presentation on how to hack water control systems at a recent Birmingham hacker convention (BrumCum), they say - don't you see it's all about to kick off.

It’s standard marketing tactics for security firms, particularly at the point where they are trying to break into new markets, to talk up the level of threat. Put crudely: fear sells. But perhaps, in the case of utility control systems, there's reason for concern.

SCADA risks

Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems lie at the heart of systems that control water, sewage and electricity systems. These devices allow utilities to remotely control and monitor generation equipment and substations over phone lines, radio links and, increasingly, IP networks.

Gary Sevounts, director of industry solutions for Symantec, said these systems had been disconnected for decades but this is changing as utilities connect their control systems to corporate networks. "The problem is that IT people don't understand SCADA and SCADA people don't understand security," he said.

Interconnection between SCADA environments and corporate networks introduce specific security needs around protocols and applications used that are not addressed by the majority of existing cyber security products. What standards that do exist are immature and power systems have different requirements in terms of reliability and availability to corporate systems.

To bridge this gap Symantec partnered with process control firm Areva in June 2004 to adapt its security products (such as Manhunt intrusion detection system, Gateway Security and anti-virus products) for use in the electricity generation and distribution industry.

Justin Lowe, PA Consultant, and Symantec representatives both stressed the point that applying firewall defences alone, whilst a good first step, is not enough to protect process control systems. "Patching is a nightmare in process control. Standard policies are guaranteed not to work," he said.

Sticking with old systems is not an option for most utilities but Lowe said he sometimes advised clients to run the latest, greatest Bluetooth-enabled devices and venerable old control systems in parallel. "These systems can co-exist," he said, adding that it all boils down to developing and implementing an appropriate risk management strategy. ®

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