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Computer hackers have begun targeting power plants and other critical infrastructure around the world in bold new moves to seize control of their operations. The activity has set off a scramble to shore up the aging, vulnerable systems.

Cyber criminals long have tried, at times successfully, to break into vital networks and power systems. Last month, cyber experts discovered for the first time a malicious computer code, called a worm, specifically created to take over systems that control the inner workings of industrial plants.

In response to the growing threat against these vital systems, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has begun building specialized teams that can respond quickly to cyber emergencies at industrial facilities across the country.

As much as 85 percent of critical U.S. infrastructure is owned and operated by private companies, companies including nuclear and electric power plants, transportation and manufacturing systems and many others. Many of the new attacks have occurred overseas, but the latest episode magnified worries among U.S. officials and cyber experts about the security of power plants and other facilities inside the United States.

"People are recognizing that the ability to impact industrial control systems has increased," said Sean McGurk, director of control systems security for DHS. "This type of malicious code and others we've seen recently are actually attacking the physical components, the devices that open doors, close doors, build cars and open gates. They're not just going after the ones and zeros (of a computer code); they're going after the devices that actually produce or conduct physical processes."

Officials have yet to point to any operating system that has been compromised by the latest computer worm. Cyber experts say attacks on industrial systems have evolved.

In the past, it was not unusual to see hackers try to infiltrate corporate networks, breaking in through gaps and stealing or manipulating data. The intrusions, at times, could trigger plant shutdowns.

The threat began to escalate last year, when computer experts started seeing instances of cyber criminals exploiting weaknesses, or holes, in the systems that control what the industries do.

The latest computer worm, dubbed Stuxnet, was an even more alarming progression. Now hackers were creating codes actually to take over the critical systems.

In many cases, according to experts and reports, the operating systems at power plants and other critical infrastructure are decades old. In some cases, they are not completely separated from the other computer networks used by companies to run administrative systems or even access the Internet.

Those links between the administrative networks and the control systems provide gateways for hackers to insert malicious codes, viruses or worms into the programs that operate the plants.

Sitting in his office not far from Homeland Security's new state-of-the-art cyber operations center, McGurk recently held out a small blue computer flash drive containing the destructive Stuxnet worm.

Cyber experts in Germany discovered the worm, which has since shown up in a number of attacks, primarily in Iran, Indonesia, India, and the United States, according to Microsoft. Stuxnet had tried to infect as many as 6,000 computers, as of July 15, according to Microsoft data.

German officials transmitted the malware to the United States through a secure network, and experts at the Energy Department's Idaho National Laboratory began to analyze it.

In plain terms, the worm was able to burrow into some operating systems that included software designed by the German company Siemens AG, by exploiting a vulnerability in several versions of Microsoft Windows.

On Monday, Microsoft released another update to deal with the problem, and Siemens has taken similar steps.

Annual reports issued by DHS and the Department of Energy have detailed weaknesses in the industrial computer systems, and have repeatedly pressed companies to reinforce security practices. Reports as recently as this past May urged companies to download routinely patches to update software, change and improve passwords, carefully restrict access to critical systems, and use firewalls to separate commonly used networks from those that control key systems.

A successful attack against a critical control systems, the Energy Department warned in its May report, "may result in catastrophic physical or property damage and loss."

Over the past year, DHS has been deploying teams of experts quietly around the country to assess weaknesses in industrial control systems. The agency has created four teams, and, with a budget scheduled to increase from $10 million this year to $15 million next year, has plans to grow to 10 teams in 2011.

The teams are armed with a $5,000 kit: a black, suitcase-sized bag crammed with cables, converters, data storage and high-tech computer forensic tools. With that equipment, they can download the problem malware, analyze it and work with the companies to correct or clean their systems.

So far, said McGurk, the teams have done 50 assessments and have been dispatched 13 times to investigate and help correct cyber incidents and attacks. Nine of the cases involved some type of deliberate cyber intrusion, while the other four were the unintended result of an operator's action.

In one of the nine intrusion cases, a company representative had gone to a conference and had the presentation documents downloaded onto a computer flash drive.

One of the files was infected with the Mariposa botnet, a malicious software code that has infected 12 million computers worldwide, including hundreds of companies and at least 40 major banks in 190 countries since appearing in Dec. 2008.

When the attendee returned to his office, and connected his laptop to the company's network, the botnet spread, eventually affecting nearly 100 computers.

A DHS team was called in, and helped the company evaluate the problem and begin to clear up the system.

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Online:

U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team: http://www.us-cert.gov/control_systems/csfaq.html

SOURCE

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