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SCADA security bug exposes world's critical infrastructure

Oil, food and plane industries at risk

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Gasoline refineries, manufacturing plants and other industrial facilities that rely on computerized control systems could be vulnerable to a security flaw in a popular piece of software that in some cases allows attackers to remotely take control of critical operations and equipment.

The vulnerability resides in CitectSCADA, a software product used to manage industrial control mechanisms known as SCADA, or Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition, systems. As a result, companies in the aerospace, food, manufacturing and petroleum industries that rely on Citect's SCADA products may be exposing critical operations to outsiders or disgruntled employees, according to Core Security, which discovered the bug.

Citect and Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) in the US, Argentina and Australia are urging organizations that rely on CitectSCADA to contact the manufacturer to receive a patch. In cases where installing a software update is impractical, organizations can implement workarounds.

In theory, the bug should be of little consequence, since there is general agreement that SCADA systems, remote terminal units and other critical industrial controls should never be exposed to the internet.

But "in the real world, in real scenarios, that's exactly what happens, because corporate data networks need to connect to SCADA systems to collect data that's relevant to running the business," said Ivan Arce, CTO of Core. "Those networks in turn may be connected to the internet."

Wireless access points also represent a weak link in the security chain, he said, by connecting to systems that are supposed to be off limits.

It's the second vulnerability Core has found in a SCADA system in as many months. In May, the security company warned of a flaw in monitoring software known as InTouch SuiteLink that put power plants at risk of being shut down by miscreants. Also last month, the organization that oversees the North American electrical grid took a drubbing by US lawmakers concerned it isn't doing enough to prevent cyber attacks that could cripple the country.

The scrutiny comes as more and more operators try to cut costs and boost efficiency by using SCADA systems to operate equipment using the internet or telephone lines. The technology has its benefits, but it may also make the critical infrastructure vulnerable to cyber attacks by extortionists, disgruntled employees and terrorists.

The flaw in CitectSCADA is related to a lack of proper length-checking that can result in a stack-based buffer overflow. Attackers who send specially crafted data packets can execute malicious code over the vulnerable system, according to Core, maker of the Core Impact penetration testing product. ®

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