In 2004, Triconex safety expert Robert Adamski told me, “I’m going to share my nightmare with you.” He proceeded to talk about, not a safety issue, but a cyber security issue. He predicted that it would be possible to penetrate a control system and enter the safety instrumented system, the SIS, which is designed to safely shut down a plant in the event of a failure in the process. He explained exactly how his hacker, “Let’s call him Ali al Qaeda,” would be able to do that, and he dared me to tell him it couldn’t happen.
Ever since then, I have been talking about Bob Adamski’s nightmare, and nobody has ever been able to tell me it couldn’t happen.
The best they could do was to assert, pretty baldly, that it was highly unlikely, that it would require great resources, and would not happen because it would potentially cause extreme damage. Neither Adamski, who passed away a few years ago, nor I ever believed much in that argument, and we’ve been waiting for Bob’s nightmare to come true.
Well, now it has. Not quite as badly as Adamski feared, and no plant was destroyed. But an attacker targeted an SIS system, and caused it to shut down the plant.
The best description of what happened, and what the malware can do is in a blog by Heather MacKenzie of Nozomi Networks. You can read the entire blog here. She makes some important points.
“The attack reprogrammed a facility’s Safety Instrumented System (SIS) controllers, causing them to enter a failed state, and resulting in an automatic shutdown of the industrial process,” MacKenzie wrote.
“The attack is bold and notable,” she said, “because it is the first known industrial control system (ICS) attack that has targeted and impacted not just an ICS, but SIS equipment. Also, the type of SIS attacked is widely used and is commissioned in a consistent way across many industries.”
She then makes an important point. “The SIS system that was attacked was a Schneider Electric Triconex Safety Instrumented System (hence the malware moniker “TRITON”, also known as “TRISIS”.) However, the malware was not designed specifically for Triconex, it was designed because the target organization was using Triconex(emphasis added).”
What MacKenzie, and Nozomi Networks’ partner, Fireye, which discovered the exploit, says is that FireEye is moderately confident that the attacker inadvertently shutdown operations while developing the ability to cause physical damage. You can read their reasons for coming to this conclusion, and many other important details about the attack, in the FireEye blog post on TRITON.
MacKenzie notes, “ It is the first known malware targeting SIS, and only the fifth malware known to specifically target ICS (after Stuxnet, Havex / Dragonfly, Blackenergy2, and Industroyer / CrashOverride).”
It is likely that if the target enterprise had been using another SIS system, the exploit would have targeted that one instead of the Triconex system.
Now that the exploit has demonstrated that SIS systems as a class are penetrable and vulnerable, we can expect to see more attacks.
“Cassandras” like Joe Weiss, myself, Eric Byres (of Tofino fame) and others have been pointing out for a decade that there is a thought gap between data security, which most cyber security systems are based on, and process safety. You cannot have a secure system unless it is a safe system. You cannot have a safe system unless it is a secure system. We can no longer ignore this fact or Bob Adamski’s nightmare will become all too real.
Intel, AMD, and Other Processors Vulnerable
If the Triton Exploit weren’t enough, the entire computing world was rocked in December and early January by the revelation that processors by Intel, ARM, AMD, and even Qualcomm (one of the largest manufacturers of mobile device processors) are vulnerable to a series of vulnerabilities, like Spectre and Meltdown, which leave them open to attack.
How this impacts the automation industry is obvious. Since the major automation vendors abandoned making their own chips, almost forty years ago, chipsets by Intel, ARM, AMD and others have been used in everything from sensors to controllers, to the computers that DCS and SCADA systems run on. The computers that serve as cloud servers are not immune either.
A report from CNET describes the issue: “Researchers found two major weaknesses in processors that could let attackers read sensitive information that should never leave the CPU, or central processing unit. In both cases, attackers could see data that the processor temporarily makes available outside of the chip.
Here’s why that happens: To make computer processes run faster, a chip will essentially guess what information the computer needs to perform its next function. That’s called speculative execution. As the chip guesses, that sensitive information is momentarily easier to access.”
Spectre and Meltdown (which targets cloud servers) can be used on systems that are not patched to prevent it, to permit unauthorized entry into the system. Now, it is in the industrial space that systems will potentially NOT be patched.
This is because in many cases, the system cannot be shut down to patch it, or the system is running on an archaic processor. There are thousands of Windows XP systems running in the industrial environment. There are instances of even Windows 3.11 and DOS systems running processes yet today. These systems cannot be patched.
Intel and the others state that the flaw has existed for at least twenty years, so all those archaic systems are vulnerable.
CNET reports, “Researchers, chipmakers and computer companies all say there are no known examples of hackers using these weaknesses to attack a computer. However, now that the details of the design flaws and how to exploit them are publicly available, the chances of hackers using them are much higher.”
As the Triton Exploit and others have proven, hackers up to and including nation states, have been trying to penetrate Industrial Control Systems for at least a decade and a half already. This just gives them another avenue to exploit. And as the ICS malware exploits we have already seen show, it is not all that difficult to attack a control system that is not adequately defended.
Operating system manufacturers like Apple and Microsoft are scrambling to patch their systems so that the exploits cannot be used. But the fact that it exists in nearly all processors means that it will be hanging over us for a long time.
In the meantime, be wary of phishing and other means of achieving entry into your control systems. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
This first appeared in the December 2017 INSIDER. If you like this kind of reporting and analysis, please consider becoming an INSIDER subscriber. Visit http://www.spitzerandboyes.com/insider for more information.