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SCADA industry debates flaw disclosure

Vendors and researchers face off

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The outing of a simple crash bug has caused public soul-searching in an industry that has historically been closed-mouthed about its vulnerabilities.

The flaw, in a particular vendor's implementation of the Inter-Control Centre Communications Protocol (ICCP), could have allowed an attacker the ability to crash a server.

Yet, unlike corporate servers that handle groupware applications or websites, the vulnerable server software - from process-control application maker LiveData - monitors and controls real-time devices in electric power utilities and healthcare settings. The best known types of devices are supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) devices and distributed control system (DCS) devices.

A crash becomes a more serious event in those applications, said Dale Peterson, CEO of Digital Bond, the infrastructure security firm that found the flaw.

"These are what you would consider, in the IT world, critical enterprise applications. But the companies don't act like these are critical enterprise applications."

LiveData maintains that the flaw is a software bug, not a security vulnerability, pointing out that it only affects how the LiveData ICCP Server handles a non-secure implementation of the communications protocol - typically used only in environments not connected to a public network.

"In general, SCADA networks are run as very private networks," LiveData CEO Jeff Robbins said. "You cannot harness an army of public zombie servers and attack them, because they are not accessible."

The incident has touched off a heated debate among a small collection of vulnerability researchers, critical infrastructure security experts and the typically staid real-time process control systems industry. The controversy mirrors the long-standing dispute between independent researchers and software vendors over disclosing vulnerabilities in enterprise and consumer applications.

In that industry, researchers have taken Apple, Oracle, Cisco and Microsoft to task at various times over the last year for the perception that the companies were not responding adequately to reports of flaws in their software products.

Last week, at the Process Control System Forum (PCSF), a conference on infrastructure management systems funded by the US Department of Homeland Security, a similar debate played itself out. Perhaps three dozen industry representatives and security researchers met during a breakout session to hash out the issues involving disclosure. The tone became, at times, contentious, said Matt Franz, the moderator at conference panel on the topic and a SCADA security researcher with Digital Bond.

"The vendors were sticking together saying that (researchers) didn't need to be involved with SCADA flaws," he said. "'It puts people and infrastructure in danger,' they said."

Moreover, many vendors did not appreciate the involvement of the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), the nation's response group tasked with managing the process of vulnerability remediation for critical infrastructure, Franz said.

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