Industrial control systems targeted by malicious attackers, research shows

A researcher uses a network of simulated water pump systems to monitor how frequently industrial control systems are attacked

Attackers are actively targeting Internet-connected ICSs (industrial control systems) in an effort to compromise their operation, according to data collected from a global network of honeypot systems that simulate water pumps.

The ICS honeypot system, designed to attract attackers, was created by Kyle Wilhoit, a researcher from security firm Trend Micro. He shared some initial findings in March based on the system's original deployment in the U.S.

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The researcher shared new data regarding attacks at the Black Hat security conference on Thursday and also released the tools for others to build and deploy similar systems.

Since March, he has made significant changes to the system architecture. He virtualized it and deployed it in additional countries, including Brazil, Russia, Ireland, Singapore, China, Japan and Australia.

The new architecture uses a tool called the BeFF (Browser Exploitation Framework) to inject JavaScript code into attackers' browsers if they break into the system and access secure areas.

The injection is not malicious in nature, but it allows the honeypot operator to obtain information about the attacker's computer, which significantly enhances the ability to attribute attacks, Willhoit said. The JavaScript code can perform Wi-Fi triangulation to determine the attacker's location and can gather information about his computer and local network, including the OS, computer name and IP address, he said.

Wilhoit has identified 74 attacks against the ICS honeypot systems, 10 of which can be considered critical and could have compromised the integrity of the water pump.

In one case, an attacker tried to change the water temperature in the pump to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and in two other cases, the attackers issued commands to shut down the water pump.

Overall, 58 percent of attacks originated from Russia, but all of them were non-critical in nature.

Attacks classified as non-critical would have not have severely affected the water pump, but they could have led to critical attacks in the future, the researcher said.

Five of the critical attacks originated from China, and one each from Germany, the U.K., France, Palestine and Japan.

The critical attacks were targeted in nature and the attackers behind them generally tried to manually identify vulnerabilities in the components of the simulated water pump system, Willhoit said.

Meanwhile, the individuals behind the non-critical attacks first performed port scans and then used automated vulnerability scanners or known ICS vulnerabilities to try to break in.

The goal of some of the critical attacks was probably espionage or reconnaissance, as attackers were actively monitoring the data coming from the system, the researcher said.

During the past few years, security researchers have identified a large number of vulnerabilities in various components of industrial control systems. However, real-world information on who might attack such systems, and how likely attacks are, has been limited.

The big takeaway from this research is that attacks against Internet-facing ICSs are occurring and some of them appear to be targeted, Wilhoit said. Many ICS engineers are likely not aware that this is happening, he said.

The researcher hopes the tools he released will help ICS owners build and deploy their own honeypots in order to see who's targeting them and why and what changes they need to make to protect their real systems.

The ICS world needs more security information sharing, Wilhoit said. Researchers and IT professionals are sharing good information in other fields of IT security and same thing needs to happen for ICS, especially in those areas that could be considered critical infrastructure, he said.

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