David Perera of Politico released a good article yesterday on the difficulty of taking out the electric grid. Unfortunately the headline writers missed the mark, “US Grid Safe From Large Scale Attack, Experts Say“, and it is difficult to write two very different points in one mainstream press article. Let me try with our ICS security focused audience.

Point 1 – Taking Down An ICS Doesn’t Necessarily Cause A Catastrophe

The article did a good job of capturing this point, but it is broader than the electric grid.

  • Some ICS will continue to run just fine if large portions of the control systems are lost, particularly servers and workstations.
  • There are often safety systems to prevent really bad things from happening. Admittedly the quality of implementation of these safety systems vary a great deal.
  • Some of the safety measures cannot be changed over the network or even serial connections.

The skilled offensive cyber adversary / hacker will likely take control of the insecure by design and fragile ICS if he has network access, and he will be able to take all or part of the ICS down. The Operations Group will not be able to use the ICS to monitor and control the physical system. The impact of this will vary by sector and system.

Take down some electric distribution SCADA systems and there will be a delay in knowing about an outage. Take down a pipeline leak detection system, and they will likely shut down the pipeline in a few hours. Take down a gas or electric meter reading SCADA, and they will estimate bills and perhaps send people out for a manual read. Take down a turbine control system and that unit in the plant will likely not generate power until it is fixed. Take down a food manufacturing plant control system and some will run on manual operations, while others will be shut down.

The key point that David’s article captured is just because the ICS that run generation and transmission in the power grid are insecure by design and fragile it does not mean that even a skilled hacker or researcher can cause a widespread blackout.

Point 2 – The US Grid & Other Critical Infrastructure Are Definitely Not Safe From The Right Team Of Attackers

With the addition of ICSage: ICS Cyber Weapons to S4 Week we have been thinking a lot about nation state or well funded offensive security teams going after critical infrastructure ICS. We believe it would consist of:

  • A “Hacker”. Actually the easiest job as Dillon Beresford, Project Basecamp and others have demonstrated.
  • An Engineer. They need to understand the process or system that is being attacked, and determine what would cause the damage they desire. This could be expensive, hard to replace physical equipment damage that would cause a long term outage. Release of materials harmful to people and the environment. Damage to reputation. Or something subtle like Stuxnet that causes a maintenance or equipment failure issue that is costly, difficult to diagnose and saps confidence in the process.
  • An Automation Expert. Once the Engineer has determined what should be done, and the Hacker has provided access to the ICS, the Automation Expert has to write the logic to implement the attack. This could be logic in a PLC, changed displays, database changes, or a variety of other ICS modifications. This is a real challenge since the Automation Expert likely cannot simulate the process completely. This may have been the most impressive aspect of Stuxnet.

I’m seeing a major shift that started at S4x14 and is continuing at S4x15 to the engineering and automation aspects of attacking and defending ICS. S4x13 showed exploit after exploit of vulnerable ICS components. The leading researchers have moved beyond that and are now looking at what to do with the owned ICS and how to defend against the really bad things a skilled attack team would want to do.

What David’s article probably couldn’t tackle is the somewhat conflicting ideas that while a highly skilled hacker or researcher likely couldn’t cause a catastrophic impact to a critical infrastructure ICS, the electric grid and other critical infrastructure is highly vulnerable to a talented and motivated team with the right mix of skills.

The vaunted safety systems often have holes in them, and the people on sites can usually tell you how they would cause long term damage to the physical system. Just a couple of examples:

  • Safety systems are often implemented in safety PLC’s. These are your typical insecure by design PLC’s with extra redundancy. And there has been a push for years now by some vendors to integrate the control and safety systems. Change the safety logic and it will either stop the process when it shouldn’t or fail to stop the really bad things from happening.
  • One of my favorite examples is vibration monitoring. This is often a separate system or application, such as Bently Nevada. It can be configured to trip a turbine or some other physical system if vibration reaches a certain level. Simply change the trip value, set it to a constant value, change the scale, … and it doesn’t provide the proper safety function.
  • Or the safety system was designed to stop problems that have seen by equipment failure or human error, but they never considered what an active attacker would do. This is why efforts to take the ICS Safety Approach with ICS Security has never worked.

All that said, David did his homework and wrote a good article. Perhaps a better title would have been “Hackers Would Have A Very Difficult Time Taking Out US Power Grid”.