Kaspersky Lab, the Russian security firm that has garnered headlines with its research into Stuxnet, Flame, Duqu, Gauss, and other sophisticated malware, says it is working on a new operating system designed specifically to shield against attacks by cyber-weapons.
The as-yet unnamed OS – internally it's known only as "11.11" because the project was launched on November 11 – is intended to protect industrial control systems (ICS) of the type used in manufacturing and infrastructure from attacks like the one that sabotaged Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010.
In a blog post on Tuesday, the ebullient Eugene Kaspersky, chair and CEO of Kaspersky Lab, compares his company's efforts to those of John McClane, the hero policeman played by Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films.
"Alas, John McClane isn't around to solve the problem of vulnerable industrial systems, and even if he were – his usual methods of choice wouldn't work," Kaspersky writes. "So it comes down to KL to save the world, naturally!"
He's only half joking. A paper describing Kaspersky Lab's new OS explains that the types of ICS it aims to protect include those used to operate power stations, reservoirs, electricity grids, pipelines, transportation systems, and telecommunications networks. Should any of these fail due to cyber-attacks, the paper suggests, "chaos and catastrophe could well follow."
According to Kaspersky, the problem is that historically, neither the developers of ICS nor the companies and governments that have implemented them have paid enough attention to security. Most have relied on the fact that information about how their systems operate is not widely available ("security through obscurity") and that their ICS networks are not directly connected to the public internet ("air gap"). But as Kaspersky points out, neither of these protections was sufficient to block the Stuxnet attack in Iran.
Furthermore, Kaspersky says, even when vulnerabilities are discovered in ICS software, existing implementations frequently go unpatched because operators are often reluctant to apply any software updates. The risk of interrupted production due to system downtime is deemed greater than the security risk.
"Ideally, all ICS software would need to be rewritten, incorporating all the security technologies available and taking into account the new realities of cyber-attacks," Kaspersky writes. "Alas, such a colossal effort coupled with the huge investments that would be required in testing and fine-tuning would still not guarantee sufficiently stable operation of systems."
No defects, no third-party code
The alternative, he says, is to build in security at the lowest operating levels, which is the goal of Kaspersky Lab's OS project. The new OS aims to create a fully secure operating environment into which existing ICS software can be installed, where it can run with the assurance that any defects in its code cannot be exploited by outside programs.
Details on just how this can be accomplished this remain vague. Kaspersky says his company is working closely with ICS vendors and customers to develop the OS, and that details of that collaboration must remain confidential. Other aspects of the project he's just not sharing.
In a nutshell, however, Kaspersky says that for an ICS to be considered secure, the data obtained from operation/process management systems must be guaranteed to be accurate and reliable, so that operators can take control of processes when disaster might be looming.
To achieve this, Kaspersky says his company is building an OS environment that will contain absolutely zero defects or vulnerabilities in the OS kernel and that will make running unauthorized, outside code "a categorical impossibility."
The new OS will not be based on Linux or any other existing platform. To retain a degree of security through obscurity, Kaspersky says it will be written entirely from scratch. The number of lines of code in the kernel will also be kept to an absolute minimum to reduce the likelihood of defects.
While this may sound like a tall order, Kaspersky says it's possible because of the narrow focus of his company's efforts. The OS Kaspersky Lab is developing is intended strictly for running ICS components and no other purpose. It won't run games, media players, web browsers, or any other class of general-purpose software.
Even then, Kaspersky recognizes that building the OS he envisions will be "very difficult and will take a lot of time." He says Kaspersky Lab has, in fact, already spent ten years on the problem, and he gave no timeline as to when the finished, working OS might appear.
Still, he says, the problem of state-sponsored malware such as Duqu, Flame, and Gauss is one that must be addressed, and neither current operating systems nor ICS software are sufficient to contain it.
"And it doesn’t really matter who's being targeted at present; what matters is that such cyber-weapons are being developed and deployed at all," Kaspersky writes. "And once Pandora's Box is open, there's no way of getting it closed again. The building up of armaments for attacks on the industrial systems and infrastructure of enemies sooner or later will affect us all." ®