UK Ministry of Justice secures HVAC systems 'protected' by passwordless Wi-Fi after Register tipoff

There's a default admin password online too


The Ministry of Justice has secured a set of Wi-Fi access points that potentially gave admin access to industrial control equipment after a tipoff by The Register.

Four unsecured wireless networks named "Boiler Pump 1" to "Boiler Pump 4" were freely accessible in the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) until The Register told officials what was happening.

The networks were all viewable from the ground floor of the Queen's Building, a 1960s extension to the original neo-Gothic court building. The RCJ houses Britain's most senior civil courts, including the Court of Appeal.

A source told us that connecting to the passwordless access points exposed a login page for what appeared to be an industrial control system developed by Armstrong Fluid Technology. Armstrong's website hosts PDF copies of equipment manuals complete with default administrator passwords, referred to by Armstrong as "Level 2" access.

"Level 1 allows the user to change the operating parameters and restore them to the factory defaults, but not save as factory defaults. Level 2 allows qualified personnel to change the operating and system parameters and allows restoring or saving the factory defaults," explained one manual, shortly before revealing the concerningly simple Level 2 password which we won't reveal here.

A malicious person who connected to the unsecured access point and viewed the pumps' login portal branding could easily have put two and two together and gained admin access to the pumps. Shutting them down could have caused water pipes to freeze overnight as winter sets in, potentially forcing the closure* of the building and delays to court cases.

Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service spokesman Jake Conneely told The Register: "Staff took immediate action to ensure these facilities cannot be accessed and maintain security across the courts."

We are told the Wi-Fi access points have been disabled until further notice.

A technically adept attacker bent on mischief could use access to the pumps as a starting point for further network exploitation. Such pivots from innocuous equipment are routine for ransomware attackers and hostile nation states alike, as compromises focused on digital supply chains have showed in recent years. One such spate of attacks targeted Accellion internet-connected file transfer appliances.

A knowledgeable source from a pentesting company, whom The Register is not naming because they were not speaking on behalf of their employer, confirmed to us that HVAC system components tend to be provisioned with a Wi-Fi access point for local access by maintenance contractors. They suggested that the boiler pump controls may also be cabled into a wider building heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) setup remotely accessible by permanent staff.

The existence of the vulnerability is surprising: as the country's biggest and highest-profile civil court, the RCJ complex is a public space, meaning those in charge of the RCJ HVAC systems should have foreseen others being able to see (and connect to) the unsecured wireless access points. They may also have been visible from a public road that runs behind the Queen's Building.

Airport-style security at the main RCJ entrance searches everyone entering. The ancient right of every Briton to enter a courtroom and sit in the public gallery watching the proceedings means locking down physical access to the Queen's Building is impossible.

As far as we know, the pump access was not exploited by anyone malicious – though if you've had a particularly cold day in court recently, perhaps it's worth asking why. ®

Bootnote

*Or perhaps not, as the Evening Standard's court correspondent related today:


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