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Hacktivists pose growing threat to industrial computing

DHS warns nation about Anonymous

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Members of the Anonymous hacking collective are increasingly interested in attacking industrial control systems used to automate machinery used by factories, power stations, water treatment plants, and other facilities critical to national security, the Department of Homeland Security warned last month.

In a memorandum (PDF) sent to partners involved in security and critical infrastructure operations, members of a DHS arm known as the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center cited several internet postings that indicate Anonymous' growing interest in targeting the remotely accessible computers used to open valves and control other gear in industrial facilities. The four-page document went on to say Anonymous members faced significant challenges, including their limited ability in hacking the gear.

“However, experienced and skilled members of Anonymous in hacking could be able to develop capabilities to gain access and trespass on control system networks very quickly,” the memo stated. “Free educational opportunities (conferences, classes), presentations at hacker conferences, and other high profile events/media coverage have raised awareness to ICS vulnerabilities, and likely shortened the time needed to develop sufficient tactics, techniques, and procedures to disrupt ICS.”

Events over the past 18 months have brought new urgency to the security of so-called SCADA, or supervisory control and data acquisition, systems used in factories, power plants, and elsewhere. Topping the list is evidence that the Stuxnet computer worm, which penetrated thousands of systems across the globe, was built as a “search and destroy weapon” by the US, Israel, or another country to sabotage Iran's fledgling nuclear program. The sophisticated piece of malware repeatedly attacked five industrial plants inside Iran over a 10-month period and caused centrifuges for uranium enrichment to malfunction.

Also significant was research unveiled earlier this year by Dillon Beresford of NSS Labs that defects in SCADA software sold by Siemens affected “every industrialized nation across the globe.” Beresford ended up postponing a previously scheduled talk about the vulnerabilities following concerns it could make attacks easier.

According to last month's DHS memo, people claiming affiliation to Anonymous in July posted code that makes queries to SIMATIC, the automation system used to issue commands to industrial control systems.

“The posted xml and html code reveals that the individual understands the content of the code in relation to common hacking techniques to obtain elevated privileges,” the document stated. “It does not indicate knowledge of ICS; rather, it indicates that the individual has interest in the application software used in control systems.

The memo went on to note that recent updates to Metasploit and other tools used by blackhat and whitehat hackers may allow even novices to penetrate SCADA systems.

The memo also referred to the “green energy” agenda touted by some members of Anonymous who are opposed to a proposed Keystone oil pipeline that would extend from Canada to Texas. Targeting of energy companies could extend beyond the ranks of Anonymous to other hacking groups, the authors said. ®

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