For the last couple of decades industrial concerns, including public utilities such as power and gas providers, have been incorporating IP networks into their industrial control systems; apparently with very little awareness of the security problems this could cause. One of the reasons for this is that ICS/SCADA systems had always been fairly safe from tampering. They were “dumb” systems that had their own protocols, and were not connected to public networks. System administrators never had to think in terms of hackers and remote attacks. They were more concerned with things like physical break-ins and theft at that time, and hackers were mainly computer-savvy kids that weren’t really out to hurt anyone.
Another reason is that security almost always takes a back seat to greater efficiency and profitability. Couple this with the fact that public utilities were increasingly strapped with budgetary cutbacks, and it’s a no-brainer from their point of view. IP protocols were already in place and off-the-shelf hardware and software applications were relatively cheap.
Embracing expediency in this way is really costing the industry now, though. Public utilities are often guilty of failing to adequately segregate their control networks from their business networks, and even if they do, it is very difficult to fend off a persistent and talented attacker. Malware and social engineering techniques become more clever every day.
Factors such as these have made the security industry increasingly antsy for years. We have been warning that these vulnerabilities exist, and have been expecting a concrete example to crop up – and now it has!
Late last month, hackers caused what is believed to be the world’s first power outage using malware. It occurred in the Ukraine and knocked out regional power for several hours. The malware family used to perpetrate this outage is known as “BlackEnergy” and has been on the radar for some time.
Luckily, this was a relatively minor, short lived incident, and nothing like this has occurred (yet) in the United States. However, the fact that this outage was possible should be a wake-up call for all of us. Hopefully, the industry will pay attention to this incident and redouble their efforts to update, secure and monitor their systems.