How to hack a nation's infrastructure

Sluice gate at dam Control systems for dams, industrial plants and building controls are increasingly being found online

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I'm watching a live video feed of people visiting a cafe in London.

It's a small, busy place and is doing a good trade in tea, coffee and cakes. That woman has dropped some money. A child is running around. Later, another customer thinks they have got the wrong change.

Nothing too gripping, you might think, except that the feed should be private, seen only by the cafe's managers. Somebody forgot to click a box so now anyone who knows where to look can watch.

That CCTV feed is just one of many inadvertently put online. Finding them has got much easier thanks to search engines such as Shodan that scour the web for them. It catalogues hundreds every day.

"Shodan makes it easier to perform attacks that were historically difficult due to the rarity of the systems involved," Alastair O'Neill from the Insecurety computer security research collective told the BBC. "Shodan lowers the cost of enumerating a network and looking for specific targets."

It is not just CCTV that has been inadvertently exposed to public scrutiny. Search engines are revealing public interfaces to huge numbers of domestic, business and industrial systems.

Mr O'Neill and other researchers have found public control interfaces for heating systems, geo-thermal energy plants, building control systems and manufacturing plants.

Remote work

The most worrying examples are web-facing controls for "critical infrastructure" - water treatment systems, power plants and traffic control systems.

Industrial plant Many industrial systems are networked because they are in remote locations

"There's a tremendous amount of stuff out there right now," said Kyle Wilhoit, a threat researcher from Trend Micro who specialises in seeking out those exposed systems and helping them improve their defences.

Mr Wilhoit said such control systems, which often go by the name of Scada (supervisory control and data acquisition), get put online for many different reasons. Often, he said, the elements of such critical systems were in far-flung places and it was much cheaper to keep an eye on them via the internet than to send an engineer out.

It's not just finding these systems that is a danger. Security experts are finding lots of holes in the software they run that, in the hands of a skilled attacker, can be exploited to grant unauthorised access.

"For attackers, the potential pay-off for compromising these systems is very high," said Mr Wilhoit.

Governments are turning their attention to increasingly public vulnerabilities in such critical systems. The US Department of Homeland Security has established a computer emergency response team that deals solely with threats to industrial control systems. In the UK, government cash has been made available to help intelligence agencies and law enforcement deal with cyberthreats.

Start Quote

"The threat is there - it might not be biting you yet but you had better be ready for the day it does”

End Quote Jeff Parker ICSPA

A Cabinet Office spokesman said cyber-attacks were one of the "top four" threats to the UK's national security.

"Billions of pounds are being lost to the UK economy from cybercrime each year, including from intellectual property theft and cyber-espionage," he said. "Industry is by far the biggest victim."

The spokesman added that government was working with industry to harden critical infrastructure against attack, and had set up a series of initiatives to share information about threats and the best way to tackle them.

Bad decisions

The number of web-facing industrial and critical systems that these search engines find is only going to grow. That could introduce a whole new problem if the work of Greg Jones from security firm Digital Assurance is any guide.

Mr Jones bought several smart electricity meters from eBay and took them apart to see how well they protected the information within them. The models he bought are the same as those likely to be used as the UK converts its relatively dumb electricity grid to a smarter alternative.

A few days of work saw Mr Jones and his colleagues extract the passwords from the small chunk of memory inside the meter.

Warning text Many of the systems found by Shodan should have a restricted audience

"They had the same credentials in them - factory default passwords." In addition, he said, basic steps to stop people fiddling with the hardware, or at least reveal tampering, had not been taken.

The traffic the devices swapped with utilities looked like it would be easy to spoof. If smart meters are rolled out in large numbers this could mean problems as it would give any attacker a way to trick that smart grid into making some catastrophically bad decisions.

"There are some really good standards out there governing smart meters," said Mr Jones. "Our evidence suggests that those suggestions are not being followed."

This is despite the government body that advises on security, based at GCHQ in Cheltenham, drawing up standards for validating the security, or otherwise, of the meters. The UK was already supposed to be well on the way to making the grid smarter but the project has been delayed because of worries about the central control system.

What is clear is that critical infrastructure and industrial plant control systems are coming under more scrutiny from both attackers and defenders.

That has its upside, said Jeff Parker, one of the directors at the ICSPA, which advises governments and businesses on cyber-protection.

"Is that a benefit? If it raises awareness of vulnerabilities, then, yes, it can help," he said. However, it might take a lot of work to harden systems and ensure they were adequately protected.

"The threat is there," he said, "It might not be biting you yet but you had better be ready for the day it does."

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