Cyber Intrusion Blamed for Hardware Failure at Water Utility

A recent cyber attack on a city water utility in Illinois may have destroyed a pump and appears to be part of a larger intrusion at a U.S. software provider, new information suggests. The incident is the latest to raise alarms about the security protecting  so-called supervisory control and data acquisition system, or “SCADA” networks — increasingly Internet-connected systems designed to monitor and control complex industrial networks.

CNN is reporting that federal officials are investigating the attack, but quoted a Department of Homeland Security official downplaying the incident. says the focus of the attack may be the Curran-Gardner Public Water District near Springfield, Ill. The Register quotes DHS’s Peter Boogaard saying the agency and the FBI are gathering facts surrounding the report of a water pump failure, but that “at this time there is no credible corroborated data that indicates a risk to critical infrastructure entities or a threat to public safety.”

The incident was first reported in a state cyber fusion notice dated Nov. 10, and soon was summarized on the blog by Joe Weiss, managing partner of Applied Control Solutions, a SCADA systems security firm. Weiss criticized the lack of response and alerting by the US-CERT, Department of Homeland Security, and the information sharing and analysis center (ISAC) run by the water industry.

Weiss read KrebsOnSecurity sections of the report, which traced the origin of the attack to Russian Internet addresses.

“Sometime during the day of Nov. 8, 2011, a water district employee noticed problems with a SCADA system. An information technology service and repair company checked the computer logs of the SCADA system and determined the system had been remotely hacked into from an Internet provider address located in Russia.”

The alert also indicates that this attack may be linked to a SCADA provider that also serves other industries, in addition to the water sector. From the alert:

“The SCADA system that was used by the water district was produced by a software company based in the US. It is believed the hackers had acquired unauthorized access to the software company’s database and retrieved the usernames and passwords of various SCADA systems, including the water district systems.”

The intrusions apparently took place over several months, during which time the attackers remotely logged into the water district’s SCADA networks and toggled systems off and on, eventually causing the failure of a water pump at the facility.

“Over a period of 2-3 months, minor glitches have been observed in remote access to the water district’s SCADA system. Recently, the SCADA system would power on and off, resulting in the burnout of a water pump.”

The notice also stated that the method of attack appears to be similar to the recent compromise of servers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which involved security weaknesses around phpMyAdmin, a popular Web-based database administration tool.

“This network intrusion is the same method of attack recently used against the MIT Server,” the water district alert stated. “The water district’s attack and the MIT attack both had references to PHPMyAdmin in the log files of the computer systems. It is unknown at this time the number of SCADA usernames and passwords acquired from the software company’s database, and if any additional systems have been attacked as a result of this theft.”

Michael Assante, president and CEO of the National Board of Information Security Examiners and a former chief security officer for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), said the attack highlights the potential pitfalls of utilities increasingly turning to off-the-shelf commercial solutions and remote access to trim costs in an era of tight state and local budgets.

“In smaller districts, you’re not going to have big network architectures [that allows you] to have restricted routing and VPN architecture,” Assante said. “But when we get to smaller water districts, the less infrastructure they can have to do their work, the cheaper it is. And with these current budget restraints for municipalities, Web remote access seems to be the way they want to do business.”

Assante said it was too early to assess the broader implications of this incident, and noted that the initial reporting on cyber-related SCADA incidents often turns out to be inaccurate. But he said that if most of the information in the original report is correct, then there are significant lessons to be learned from this incident.

“You have compromises occurring over remote access, and over months this had effects on the system that were anomalous or never coordinated to a cyber event,” Assante said. “If what really happened here turns out to be 80 percent close to what’s in the original reports, it will be very important to know what we can learn from this.”

The wait-and-see response from the DHS and FBI appears to have encouraged hackers to highlight similar vulnerabilities in other water districts. Several sites now are reporting on a claim by a hacker named “pr0f” who posted a series of images that appear to  demonstrate remote access to a SCADA system that is responsible for the water supply in the City of South Houston, Nevada. It’s not clear whether the image noted here is supposed to be for a Texas or Nevada facility, but Fred Gonzalez, superintendent of the City of South Houston, Texas water and sewer division said his organization was still analyzing the information to determine its veracity.

A screen shot posted online today, allegedly from remote access to SCADA systems for the City of South Houston.

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