Air-gapping SCADA systems won't help you, says man who knows

Faizel Lahkani sounds bleak warning over future Stuxnet-style attacks


Hoping to keep industrial control systems out of reach of hackers by keeping them air-gapped is a hopeless mission that’s bound for failure, according to a SCADA guru.

Isolating SCADA systems as a means of protection has been suggested by some as a defensive tactic after hackers briefly took out elements of the power grid in the Ukraine last December.

Faizel Lakhani, a pioneer of SCADA technology, told El Reg that air-gapping such systems would be a quixotic endeavour, at best.

“Most SCADA systems are theoretically air gapped but not really disconnected from the network” Lakhani explained. “There are ways to get around isolation either because systems are not set up properly or because that’s a test link in there or someone bridged the Wi-Fi network, to name a few examples.”

20 years ago, Faizel Lakhani used a PDP-11 and created electric utility company Ontario Hydro's first SCADA system. The technology has since become ubiquitous, but it’s only since the appearance of the nuclear centrifuge-busting Stuxnet worm back in 2010 that anybody has paid serious attention to the security of the technology.

“Power control systems were never designed with security in mind,” Lakhani explained. “They were designed to manage regulators and voltage flow and that’s still what they do.”

The technology was originally based on archaic protocols and communications technologies. Systems were designed to be connected together but never designed with the open internet in mind. However the incredible success of TCP/IP internet networking protocols over the last 15 year or so has swept all before it, including SCADA systems.

“In the world of the internet almost anything is connected,” Lakhani said.

SCADA started off with archaic protocols such as FDDI, Token Ring but “good luck building a network with anything other than TCP/IP now,” Lakhani added.

Even with the best of intent, controls will be eroded and hence you need a layer of visibility to detect, according to Lakhani.

El Reg spoke to Lakhani, who is president and COO of lawful interception technology firm SS8, to accompany the firm’s launch of a breach detection technology, targeted at enterprises instead of its traditional carrier and government customer base.

Many enterprise systems, much like SCADA devices, are not built to withstand today's threats. SS8’s BreachDetect communications analytics technology can be used to identify potential anomalies and compromised devices. This, so SS8 claims, offers a better chance of earlier breach detection when compared to other approaches to tackling much the same problems source as intrusion detection (e.g. Cisco SourceFire) or SIEMs and BIG Data analytics tools.

Even as more traffic on enterprise networks is encrypted SS8’s approach can still provide crucial insights, according to Lakhani.

“Encryption technologies do make content inspection hard, however it is the combination of deep packet inspection with behaviour with context (device/user) that represents the opportunity,” he explained. ®


Other stories you might like

  • US-APAC trade deal leaves out Taiwan, military defense not ruled out
    All fun and games until the chip factories are in the crosshairs

    US President Joe Biden has heralded an Indo-Pacific trade deal signed by several nations that do not include Taiwan. At the same time, Biden warned China that America would defend Taiwan from attack; it is home to a critical slice of the global chip industry, after all. 

    The agreement, known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), is still in its infancy, with today's announcement enabling the United States and the other 12 participating countries to begin negotiating "rules of the road that ensure [US businesses] can compete in the Indo-Pacific," the White House said. 

    Along with America, other IPEF signatories are Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Combined, the White House said, the 13 countries participating in the IPEF make up 40 percent of the global economy. 

    Continue reading
  • 381,000-plus Kubernetes API servers 'exposed to internet'
    Firewall isn't a made-up word from the Hackers movie, people

    A large number of servers running the Kubernetes API have been left exposed to the internet, which is not great: they're potentially vulnerable to abuse.

    Nonprofit security organization The Shadowserver Foundation recently scanned 454,729 systems hosting the popular open-source platform for managing and orchestrating containers, finding that more than 381,645 – or about 84 percent – are accessible via the internet to varying degrees thus providing a cracked door into a corporate network.

    "While this does not mean that these instances are fully open or vulnerable to an attack, it is likely that this level of access was not intended and these instances are an unnecessarily exposed attack surface," Shadowserver's team stressed in a write-up. "They also allow for information leakage on version and build."

    Continue reading
  • A peek into Gigabyte's GPU Arm for AI, HPC shops
    High-performance platform choices are going beyond the ubiquitous x86 standard

    Arm-based servers continue to gain momentum with Gigabyte Technology introducing a system based on Ampere's Altra processors paired with Nvidia A100 GPUs, aimed at demanding workloads such as AI training and high-performance compute (HPC) applications.

    The G492-PD0 runs either an Ampere Altra or Altra Max processor, the latter delivering 128 64-bit cores that are compatible with the Armv8.2 architecture.

    It supports 16 DDR4 DIMM slots, which would be enough space for up to 4TB of memory if all slots were filled with 256GB memory modules. The chassis also has space for no fewer than eight Nvidia A100 GPUs, which would make for a costly but very powerful system for those workloads that benefit from GPU acceleration.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022