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Stuxnet-style SCADA attack kept quiet after US gov tests

'Industrial grade malware without nation state backing'

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Security researchers decided to cancel a planned demonstration of security holes in industrial control systems from Siemens following requests from the German manufacturer and a security response team.

Dillon Beresford, a security analyst at NSS Labs, and independent security researcher Brian Meixell were due to make a presentation – entitled Chain Reactions–Hacking SCADA – at the TakeDown Conference in Dallas on Wednesday.

They shared their research beforehand with Siemens, ICS-CERT (Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team – a division of the Department of Homeland Security), and the Idaho National Lab. Siemens asked the two researchers to hold fire on the talk, which covered possible mechanisms to attack industrial control systems along with a practical demonstration.

Beresford and Meixell agreed to delay their presentation. "We were asked very nicely if we could refrain from providing that information at this time," Beresford told CNET. "I decided on my own that it would be in the best interest of security to not release the information."

Later, speaking to Wired, Beresford added that the "DHS in no way tried to censor the presentation". Beresford said that he had found multiple vulnerabilities in the SCADA systems he tested, without saying what these bugs might be. At least one of the security flaws may affect multiple vendors.

NSS Labs stressed that no legal pressure had been placed on Beresford to cancel the talk, which he postponed because the proposed mitigation techniques suggested by Siemens were insufficient to deal with threats the talk would have highlighted.

A synopsis of the cancelled talk explains:

SCADA exploits have recently taken center stage in the international community. These types of vulnerabilities pose significant threats to critical infrastructure. Combining traditional exploits with industrial control systems allows attackers to weaponize malicious code, as demonstrated with Stuxnet. The attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities were started by a sequence of events that delayed the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

We will demonstrate how motivated attackers could penetrate even the most heavily fortified facilities in the world, without the backing of a nation state. We will also present how to write industrial grade malware without having direct access to the target hardware. After all, if physical access was required, what would be the point of hacking into an industrial control system?

Security shortcomings in the Programmable Logic Controllers within SCADA systems from Siemens were the target of the infamous Stuxnet worm, which Iranian authorities have admitted infiltrated its nuclear facilities and sabotaged systems. SCADA systems control everything from valves on oil and gas pipeline to energy grids, heat sensors in power plants and bottle washers in beverage manufacturing factories.

In a blog post explaining the decision to postpone the SCADA security talk, NSS Labs explained that "significant additional vulnerabilities in industrial control systems have been identified, responsibly disclosed and validated by affected parties".

It added: "Due to the serious physical, financial impact these issues could have on a worldwide basis, further details will be made available at the appropriate time. Legitimate owners/operators of leading SCADA PLCs may contact us for further information." ®

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