Why Security Holes In Critical Infrastructure Are So Darn Hard To Fix

Security researchers recently found gaping vulnerabilities in a wide variety of critical business and industrial equipment. It turns out that weak or absent passwords made it easy to break into more than 100,000 terminal servers used to provide their Internet connections. Fixing the problem is simple. Change the credentials dramatically reduces the risk. But for many companies, actually solving the problem is nearly impossible.

Vulnerable, But Hidden

The threats discovered by security firm Rapid7 exemplify the difficulties organizations face in plugging even known holes in critical gear. In this case, the affected systems include industrial control equipment, traffic-signal monitors, fuel pumps, retail point-of-sale terminals and building automation equipment such as alarms and heating and ventilation (HVAC) systems.

Rapid7 found more than 114,000 unprotected terminal servers, mostly from Digi International or Lantronix, that a hacker could use to take control of the underlying systems. Finding the serial ports on the server requires the use of a scanning tool, such as Nmap. Once an active port is found, a command-line program similar to what those used in 1980s vintage home computers is all that's needed to access a control panel or menu or capture data.

Fortunately, while tech-savvy saboteurs or terrorists would have no difficulty gaining access to the equipment, they most likely would not know who owns it or where it is located. Without that information, the find would not be very useful. "There's no telling who they are going to hurt, if they don't know where the device is," explained HD Moore, chief research officer for Rapid7.

How Security Gets Missed

Nevertheless, any hole that can provide access to critical equipment is worth plugging, but it's not likely to happen in many of these cases. Often, companies do not even know the terminal server exists, much less that it needs security updates.

How is that possible? Well, picture a vendor working with the facilities crew installing an HVAC system that uses a terminal server so the equipment can be monitored from a remote location. No one knows the server exists, and no one cares, as long as everything works. "A lot of times IT is not even aware of these systems," said Matthew Neely, director of research at risk management company SecureState.

Vendor marketing can also exacerbate the problem. Equipment is often sold as being "secured," when in fact it is only "capable of being secured." That means the buyer still has to add the technology or turn on and configure the security features.

This can get missed if the installers assume the equipment is "plug and play," said Joe Weiss, a security consultant for Applied Control Solutions. "It's like getting a toy for Christmas and you pull it out of the box expecting it to run, because the box doesn't tell you it needs two AA batteries," Weiss added.

Terminal servers, also called serial port servers, often get missed by electric utility companies because they are not covered under federal cybersecurity requirements. So the devices never make it on the utility's compliance checklist. "They don't even have to check these out to find out if they are or not secure," Weiss said.

This bizarre situation demonstrates that ensuring the security of critical equipment is never a matter of technology alone. True security requires people to pay attention, not just sweep everything under the rug.

 

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