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The systems are being replaced more quickly as more companies understand the obvious benefits of remote management and monitoring. While SCADA systems have typically lasted anywhere from 15 to 30 years, because of the steady stream of new technology, more recent systems tend to be deployed for eight to 12 years, INL's Assante said.

Yet, without deploying proper security measures the trend toward remote management means the systems are more vulnerable, he added.

"We are still suffering from the cultural issues and that lack of understanding of, not necessarily the problems and the risks, but how to solve them," Assante said.

The threat to distributed control systems is not academic. Vulnerability researchers have started talking about the flaws in such systems at security and hacking conferences.

At the forthcoming DEFCON hacking conference in Las Vegas, independent security researcher Shawn Merdinger planned to discuss weaknesses in the network components of the critical infrastructure but cancelled his talk when his research apparently revealed that at least a handful of systems appeared to be using residential routers with known vulnerabilities to connect to the internet.

"These are the guys who are making the most secure and sensitive devices in the world, and they are using FTP and email for communication and topping it all off with a (home) router," Merdinger said. "That makes this almost as secure as my mom's computer."

He has attempted to inform the companies involved, but has not yet gotten a response, Merdinger said. Others knowledgeable about the vulnerabilities confirmed that they are not trivial issues.

"My experience is that such massive security shortcomings in critical systems are more the norm than the exception," said "FX", a well-known network vulnerability researcher. "We see this development recently all over the first world: while corporate and even personal computing devices get better and better in terms of security due to market pressure; military, SCADA and other critical systems don't."

The latest project could fix that just by adding clarity to negotiations between the buyer and the system's supplier, said Dale Peterson, CEO of SCADA security consultancy Digital Bond. The company recently asked a critical-infrastructure provider to identify all security parameters used by their product and the recommended settings. Two months later, the company is still waiting for the information.

"A large part of the reason the security requirements are missing is the asset owners are, as a rule, not sure what to require," Peterson said. "Information security is a new field for many of them."

With customers asking specifically for certain security measures, distributed control system makers should gain the expertise quickly, INL's Assante said.

"Control systems are really weighted toward reliability and availability, so we have to make sure that they understand that security is part of that and not a third competing concept," Assante said.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus

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