A team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta) have developed a new type of ransomware that was able to take over control of a simulated water treatment plant in a recently conducted test.
After gaining access, the researchers were able to command programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to shut valves, increase the amount of chlorine added to water, and display false readings. The simulated attack, designed to highlight vulnerabilities in the control systems used to operate industrial facilities including manufacturing plants, water and wastewater treatment facilities and building management systems for controlling escalators, elevators and HVAC systems, is believed to be the first to demonstrate ransomware compromise of real PLCs, according to the Georgia Tech team.
The research was presented Feb. 13 at the RSA Conference in San Francisco.
While no real ransomware attacks have been publicly reported on the process control components of industrial control systems, the attacks have become a significant problem for patient data in hospitals and customer data in businesses. Attackers can gain access to these systems and encrypt the data, demanding a ransom to provide the encryption key that allows the data to be used again. The researchers noted that ransomware generated an estimated $200 million for attackers during the first quarter of 2016, and the researchers believe it’s only a matter of time before critical industrial systems are compromised and held for ransom.
“We are expecting ransomware to go one step farther, beyond the customer data to compromise the control systems themselves,” said David Formby, a doctoral student in the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “That could allow attackers to hold hostage critical systems such as water treatment plants and manufacturing facilities. Compromising the PLCs in these systems is a next logical step for these attackers.”
Many industrial control systems lack strong security protocols, noted Raheem Beyah, the Motorola Foundation Professor and associate chair in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Formby’s faculty advisor. That’s likely because these systems haven’t been targeted by ransomware so far, and because their vulnerabilities may not be well-understood by their operators.
In their research, Formby and Beyah used a specialized search program to locate 1400 PLCs of a single type that were directly accessible across the Internet. Most such devices are located behind business systems that provide some level of protection—until they are compromised. Once attackers get into a business system, they could pivot to enter control systems if they are not properly walled off.
“Many control systems assume that once you have access to the network, that you are authorized to make changes to the control systems,” Formby said. “They may have very weak password policies and security policies that could let intruders take control of pumps, valves and other key components of the industrial control system.”
In most cases, control systems were not designed for connecting to the Internet, and many users of the systems assume they aren’t on the public network and therefore not susceptible to attack, the researchers added. Control systems may also have connections that are unknown to operators, including access points installed to allow maintenance, troubleshooting and updates.
“There are common misconceptions about what is connected to the Internet,” said Formby. “Operators may believe their systems are air-gapped and that there’s no way to access the controllers, but these systems are often connected in some way.”
To launch the research, the researchers identified several common PLCs in use at industrial facilities. They obtained three different devices and tested their security setup, including password protection and susceptibility to settings changes. The devices were then combined with pumps, tubes and tanks to create a simulated water treatment facility. In the place of chlorine normally used to disinfect water, the researchers used iodine. They also added starch to their water supply, which turned bright blue when a simulated attack added iodine to it.
“We were able to simulate a hacker who had gained access to this part of the system and is holding it hostage by threatening to dump large amounts of chlorine into the water unless the operator pays a ransom,” Formby said. “In the right amount, chlorine disinfects the water and makes it safe to drink. But too much chlorine can create a bad reaction that would make the water unsafe.”
Vulnerabilities in control systems have been known for more than a decade, the researchers noted, but until the growth of ransomware, attackers had not been able to benefit financially from compromising the systems. As other ransomware targets become more difficult, Beyah believes attackers may turn to easier targets in the industrial control systems.
“It’s quite likely that nation-state operators are already familiar with this and have attacks that they could use for political purposes, but ordinary attackers have had no interest in these systems,” he said. “What we hope to do is bring attention to this issue. If we can successfully attack these control systems, others with a bad intention can also do it.”
Besides improving password security and limiting connections, Beyah said that operators of these devices need to install intrusion monitoring systems to alert them if attackers are in the procepatrickss control networks. Beyah and Formby have launched a company to make their strategies for protecting systems broadly available to control system operators.
DuPont Awards Early Career Grants
DuPont (Wilmington, DE) has named eight young faculty members to its 2016 Class of DuPont Young Professors. Recognizing promising research talent, the company will provide this group of international faculty with more than $350,000 during the next two years to support their research that advances basic science knowledge to address global challenges in food, energy and protection.
The 2016 Class of DuPont Young Professors are engaged in promising research in key areas of interest to DuPont, including work in the fields of plant biology, biotechnology, materials science, photovoltaics and chemical engineering. These interests are highly aligned with DuPont’s strategic priorities of science-based innovation in the areas of agriculture and nutrition, bio-based industrials and advanced materials.
“Research and development is becoming more networked than ever. The DuPont Young Professor program is an excellent way to strengthen both academic research and industry collaboration by supporting promising young faculty,” said Douglas Muzyka, DuPont senior vice president and chief science and technology officer. “Interactions with these researchers will further stimulate the creativity of DuPont scientists and engineers doing cutting-edge research.”
Managed by DuPont’s Science and Innovation organization, the program helps promising young and untenured research faculty begin their research careers. In addition, it supports DuPont’s strategic goal of broadening and extending DuPont’s business horizons through the advancement of emerging sciences that originate from inside the company as well as its research partners. The program dates to 1918, when Pierre S. du Pont selected 42 universities in the US and provided grants that supported young faculty. Since 1968, this program has provided over $50 million in grants to more than 700 young professors in 150 institutions in 19 countries.
Members of the DuPont Young Professor Class of 2016 are key scientists on the staff of eight leading universities around the world. The 2016 awards were made to the following promising young faculty:
- Rupert J. Baumgartner, Institute of Systems Sciences, Innovation and Sustainability Research, University of Graz, Austria;
- Shelley Claridge, Departments of Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering, Purdue University;
- Candice Hirsch, Department of Plant Agronomy and Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota;
- Tengfei Luo, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, University of Notre Dame;
- Peter Nemes, Department of Chemistry, George Washington University;
- Fabien Sorin, Institute of Materials, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland;
- Ana Velez, Department of Entomology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln;
- Jia Zhu, College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Nanjing University, China.
TechFront is edited by Senior Editor Patrick Waurzyniak.