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SCADA industry debates flaw disclosure

Vendors and researchers face off

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

The LiveData flaw was the first flaw in SCADA systems handled by US-CERT and the CERT Coordination Centre, the group that manages the national agency. While valuable as a learning experience, the entrance of a third party into the disclosure of a flaw in an infrastructure system brought up more questions than answers. At the PCSF session, many vendors voiced concerns over involving a third party.

"I did not come away with a feeling that any issues were settled," said Art Manion, internet security analyst for the CERT Coordination Centre and a participant in the discussion at the conference.

The debate over how disclosure should be handled underscores both the intense focus on SCADA and DCS systems as potential targets of cyberattacks and the position of many companies in the real-time process control systems industry that vulnerabilities in such systems require special treatment.

"In security circles, it is widely discredited that you can secure something though obscurity - yet SCADA systems are really obscure," LiveData's Robbins said. "That is not a statement of a principle of security and doesn't rationalise anything, but is a fact."

Even SCADA security specialists agree that obscurity can raise the hurdle enough to keep most online attackers from jumping into SCADA systems.

"There are some legacy systems out there running plants that are more secure than many latest and greatest systems, because they are not connected to the internet or they are using obscure standards," said Ernest Rakaczky, program director for process control systems at infrastructure firm Invensys.

That's true - at least to an extent, said CERT Coordination Centre's Manion.

"The information on these systems can be found by a determined attacker," he said. "Part of our outreach is to show that people can find out about these things and find vulnerabilities."

Consultants who have done penetration testing and security audits of real-time process control systems tell grim stories about the lack of security in the systems. Data is transfered with no encryption using protocols, such as Telnet and FTP, that are being phased out in other industries; many firewalls have ports opened to any traffic; and, many workstations still run Windows NT, said Jonathan Pollet, vice president and founder of PlantData Technologies, a division of infrastructure security company Verano.

"The guys who are setting up these systems are not security professionals," he said. "And many of the systems that are running SCADA applications were not designed to be secure - it's a hacker's playground."

For between five and 10 per cent of the networks audited by PlantData, a single ping attack or a data flood aimed at a SCADA system could shut down most of the managed devices, Pollet said.

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