Cyber security experiment reveals threats to industrial systems

A recent report shows how “honey pots” designed to look like municipal water utility networks attract many hackers. Security experts offer their analysis of the findings and suggest how they could influence your defensive strategies.


At the Black Hat conference in July, Trend Micro presented a report about an experiment the company conducted where it deployed 12 honey pots around the world that were designed to look like the ICS (industrial control system) networks of municipal water utilities. Between March and June, these attracted 74 intentional attacks, including at least 10 where the attackers were able to take over the control system.

The report is available at the bottom of this article.

To unpack the significance of this experiment and draw out lessons you can use as you plan your defensive strategies, three cyber security experts offer their analysis.

Michael Assante is ICS and SCADA lead for the SANS Institute, and was vice president and chief security officer at NERC. He developed strategy for the control systems group at Idaho National Labs, and was vice president and chief security officer for American Electric Power.

Tim Conway is technical director, ICS and SCADA for the SANS Institute and was director of NERC compliance and operations technology at NIPSCO.

Matt Luallen is founder of Cybati, a cyber security training and consulting company, and is a frequent columnist and security contributor to Control Engineering.

There is one aspect of Trend Micro's report that is not included in the discussion. It attributes at least some of the hacking activity to groups connected with the Chinese Army. The consensus opinion of our participants is that while making this specific type of attribution might well be correct, it goes beyond what could be proven conclusively from the available evidence. Moreover, it suggests that such groups are looking for targets of opportunity rather than following a strategy that selects more specific types of systems to attack.

Let’s begin with an overview of the study and what it involves.

Assante: Trend Micro put together a number of honey pots that appeared to exist geographically in different parts of the world. They picked a municipal water system as the design for the honey pot, so they built something that looks like a water system, I assume it has names and labels like a water system, and it has some level of technical architecture that makes it look like control systems linked to a municipal water utility. The system was put out there, accessible from the Internet. The researcher was interested in the amount of activity such Web-facing control systems receive from the threat community. He’s done some research in this area, so this project had two goals: First, to validate his interest by seeing if those people are looking for such targets, if they would find the honey pot realistic, and then what they would do with it. Second, he wanted to gauge the technical capabilities of those who came looking.

Trend Micro’s creators probably had two things in mind: First, they chose a target like a water system of a small municipality to keep the project manageable. Second, they picked architectures that tend to be more susceptible in light of where they see the threat community. As targets, such systems are low-hanging fruit. Being a water system, it’s a very small control system, which sends a message to all of us: There’s no such thing as too small. There were those who came to look at the target, and they came with attack capabilities that were aligned with the target. So if you believe you’re too small and nothing like this is ever going to happen to you, guess what, these systems were designed to look like a small system in the middle of nowhere and attackers still came.

Did the attackers know how to approach industrial systems and communication protocols, or did that reduce their effectiveness? Many users try to take comfort in the idea of "security by obscurity," believing that hackers don't know how to deal with industrial networks.

Assante: Most of the attackers came simply because they had some general Internet exploit capabilities, but weren’t fully prepared to deal with the realities of a control system. Control systems have common elements like an OS layer and the application layer, and in this case Web-based remote access. But a small subset of the people who came was prepared to dig into control systems and came with enough capability to take over the systems they found. Around 10 of those who got in were able to establish full control over the system that was being simulated in the honey pot. Four of them did it by manipulating the industrial protocol being simulated or hardware devices.

Those attackers came with the right tools, experience, and a plan of what they wanted to do to operate at the level of the industrial protocol and hardware—not just at the application level or OS level.

That leaves a question: Of the 10 who took control of the process, did they do anything that might have harmed the process, or is this just a learning expedition? Could they change HMIs? Could they move setpoints? Did they put down a Trojan to keep a foothold to maintain access? There has to be some indication of the motivation of the threat actors that took over the process. What do we think their intent was? Is there anything we can learn from their motivation?

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Pierre , Quebec, Canada, 10/24/13 08:46 AM:

I did find it to be very informative. It will affect our future control system specifications.
Anonymous , 11/13/13 05:55 PM:

I is interesting that Time Magazine has a cover story on the Nov. 11, 2013 issue informing its readers of the "Dark Web" (TOR Network). Whereas your Nov. issue details the hacking tools that have evolved some four years later. Good reporting on what is happening NOW.
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