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Properly Tackle Your Cyber-Security

Start by getting a realistic view of weaknesses in
your specific hardware and software.
By Jeff Melrose, Yokogawa
Aug 17, 2015
Companies using or providing industrial automation systems never want to receive news that a
vulnerability has been identified that could allow a cyber criminal to break into a system to do
damage or steal information. Anyone who pays attention to the cyber security world knows about
these sorts of problems.

Microsoft has to correct such vulnerabilities in Windows and other platforms on a monthly basis, or
even more often in some cases. The hand wringing about Microsoft discontinuing security updates
for Windows XP shows that hackers are still finding new vulnerabilities; others certainly still are
waiting to be discovered, even after more than 12 years of security updates and improvements.

Multiple Firewalls
Figure 1. A company should install an Internet-facing firewall and well as ones between its corporate
and control networks. Source: ICS-CERT.

Vulnerabilities of one sort or another exist in virtually every software program of any size or
complexity. While programmers do their best to create reliable and secure software, some
weaknesses will arise when programs have many thousands or even millions of lines of code. These
vulnerabilities may not interfere with normal operation but one might provide an entry that can be
pried open with the right tools and strategy if a cyber criminal wants to break in.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security supports an Industrial Control Systems Cyber
Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) that provides many helpful resources and services for
industrial users. If this is something you never have explored, make a point of checking
out https://ics-cert.us-cert.gov.
One ICS-CERT service is an index of vulnerability advisories listed by particular products deployed
in the field. Most of these advisories relate to a specific piece of hardware or a software platform.
The weaknesses might have been discovered by users or as part of laboratory analysis. The
response team documents the problem, explains what it means, indicates if it has been used in a
documented cyber attack, details what the vendor is doing about it, and provides suggestions for

The list covers a variety of issues. Some examples include:

runtime toolkit null pointer deference;

data server denial of service;
improper authorization;
incorrect DNP3 driver input validation;
use of hard-coded password; and
insecure password storage.
The website names the specific supplier affected by each listed vulnerability.

Many varieties of root causes exist but one of the most common is some form of buffer overflow. In
simple terms, a buffer overflow occurs when a hacker forces too much data into a given buffer
space, which causes it to overflow into adjacent buffers and create interference. This can provide a
means to access other parts of a system for potentially nefarious activity.

Cyber criminals typically use these vulnerabilities as tools in one of two ways.

A hacker who has learned how to exploit a vulnerability in a particular piece of equipment can try to
use this skill wherever that equipment is deployed. Knowing how to break into a Brand-X Model 200
programmable logic controller (PLC) because it has a hard-coded password allows the person to
search for situations where that device is found and attack these locations as targets of opportunity.
The motivation may be mainly to capitalize on the weakness of the equipment rather than to target a
specific location.

A hacker trying to break into a particular target will take the opposite approach. The person might
scan the systems of the company to determine what equipment it uses. When those items are
cataloged, its a matter of finding out which have the most useful vulnerabilities that can be exploited
to achieve the desired result. Some companies have discovered to their dismay that a dedicated
hacker has a better picture of their networks than they do.

A Sobering List
After spending a few minutes sifting through the list of advisories, youll find that virtually every major
automation supplier shows up one way or another, and most more than once. No company is
immune to some sort of problem, particularly with its larger platforms. Suppliers dont like to appear
on the list and do everything they can to correct these issues but the realities of cyber security
guarantee problems always will exist.

Such problems occur for a number of reasons. Suppliers tend to reuse chunks of programming that
work and some of these can go back to a time when security was less of a concern. Such legacy
code can remain in a users system for many years and function perfectly, all the while hosting a
vulnerability waiting to be discovered.

Some users looking at the list of vulnerabilities may find it somewhat overwhelming given the sheer
number of items. However, for a given asset owner or industrial network administrator, the overall
number isnt as important as the specific items germane to particular installations.

The more relevant question is how many of these vulnerabilities exist in your plant, and how severe
the individual ones are given your particular applications. Of course the information available from
the ICS-CERT only is valuable if you know when it applies to you, which requires some sleuthing on
your part.

The extent to which this ICS-CERT information will have meaning for a specific company depends
upon one critical question: Do you know what is in your plant? This isnt a general question with a
short answer. Instead, you must consider in detail the particulars of your operations because the
ICS-CERT advisories are very specific down to the individual device or system and its software

Yes, it is important to know which distributed control system or supervisory control and data
acquisition platform is running, but this knowledge must include every item of automation and
networking hardware, including but not limited to:

PLCs, programmable automation controllers and remote terminal units;

Industrial PCs;
engineering workstations;
human/machine and other operator interfaces;
ethernet switches;
firewalls and security appliances;
wireless gateways;
transient, portable and mobile devices;
modems; and
anything and everything else that communicates on your automation networks.

The list isnt complete without the relevant software and firmware down to the revision level
connected to every one of these items. Its also important to know how all these devices are
connected and what kinds of communication are typical and necessary in day-to-day operation.

If your list lacks the required level of detail, youre not alone. Few, if any, companies keep their list as
up-to-date as they should. Nonetheless, the ability to know compromised devices and systems exist
on your networks is critical to defending them against attack.

Understanding traffic on your networks also is an essential step to identifying something that
shouldnt be there, but thats a discussion for another time.

Using The List

You likely will find at least a few entries on the list that apply to your particular operations.

Each advisory cites the issuing company, the specific products impacted down to their revision level,
and the date of the advisory. It provides enough detail so a user can know immediately if a given
installation is affected, hence the necessity of your knowing in detail what software is in use.

Advisories will offer warnings such as: Successful exploitation of this vulnerability may allow remote
attackers to execute arbitrary code. Impact to individual organizations depends on many factors that
are unique to each organization. ICS-CERT recommends that organizations evaluate the impact of
this vulnerability based on their operational environment, architecture, and product implementation.

The advisory continues with a discussion of where these platforms typically are used and more
technical detail on the vulnerability. It also offers analysis as to how the weakness might be
exploited, whether any known cases of it being used in an attack exist, and even some mention of
the skill level required to carry out an attack. This information is designed to assist an affected user
considering what defensive strategy might be best.
Normally, the ICS-CERT allows the relevant supplier to study the vulnerability and to prepare a
mitigation strategy before publishing an advisory. So, typically, the advisory will suggest something
like: [The vendor] provides patch software for the latest revisions of the affected products. This
vulnerability can be corrected by installing the patch software. The computer must be rebooted to
activate the patch software. If the system uses earlier versions of the software than the ones for
which the software patches are provided, [the vendor] recommends that users upgrade to the latest
revisions/versions and then apply the software patches.

ICS-CERT also offers a series of general defensive measures that can be used to protect against
this specific risk and other related issues; for instance, it suggests the use of multiple firewalls
(Figure 1). Those practices suit virtually any situation and are well worth reviewing. In addition, more
extensive guidelines appear in other publications, which can be found with a few minutes of
exploration on the ICS-CERT site.

Working With Patches

A typical industrial automation system environment includes three main types of software:

1. The main control system platform. Most environments usually consist of one main system
supported by ancillary functions or utilities added by the integrator or customer. In any case, these
programs are all known and function under their own name.

2. The operating system environment, and the general networking and communication platforms.
These serve as infrastructure; while they may support the automation system, they dont perform
any control functions. In years past, these would have been included as part of a larger proprietary
system but more recently products like Microsoft Windows have taken over.

3. All other items of the automation system. Suppliers of complex systems or control system
integrators may embed third-party software to carry out specific functions. Depending upon the
situation, the identity and nature of these might not be obvious or even known at all to the user.
When a vulnerability is found and the user doesnt have sufficient information to recognize it, the risk
remains that a criminal might find the weakness and exploit the opportunity.

Most solutions require software patches. When dealing with the main control system platform, you
can presume that patches issued by the original company will work without disrupting other parts of
the system, at least under normal circumstances. They typically do require rebooting the system,
which might be difficult depending upon the criticality of the system to the plants operation.

Patches issued for operating systems, including Windows and other platforms that perform similar
functions, must be checked to verify they dont disrupt any control system functions. Often testing
done by the control system vendor will suffice. However, particularly if an end users system contains
significant modifications, the user company may have to carry out its own tests before deploying the
patch to the operating plant system.

Dealing with third-party software vulnerabilities is the most difficult because such software frequently
relies heavily on custom code. In these cases, its often necessary to go back to the original creators
of the code. Another option is to modify the system such that the custom code no is longer needed.
Five Key Steps

Table 1. Properly addressing cyber-security issues starts with

detailed knowledge of your specific systems.
You must understand the particular vulnerabilities your operation faces and deal specifically
with each weakness. This requires:
1. Preparing a detailed list of your plants automation hardware and software.
2. Examining the ICS-CERT advisories to see which apply to your system.
3. Making a list of these issues.
4. Contacting your suppliers for patches to resolve your listed issues.
5. Developing a plan to install and test patches.

Use Available Resources

Tackling your particular cyber-security vulnerabilities demands a conscientious approach, as
summarized in Table 1.

Take advantage of the ICS-CERT. It offers a variety of helpful information and resources for asset
owners. This information applies to a wide range of applications and can form a basis for initial
cyber-security planning.

The specific vulnerability advisories are more complex; using them effectively assumes a certain
level of technical competence and the ability to recognize when and how they apply in a given

Cyber security is a complex issue but help is available from ICS-CERT, suppliers and consultants.

JEFF MELROSE is principal technology strategist for cyber security at Yokogawa U.S., Carrollton,
Texas. E-mail him at jeff.melrose@us.yokogawa.com.