A Hacker’s Hit List of American Infrastructure

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On Friday, December 19, the FBI officially named North Korea as the party responsible for a cyber attack and email theft against Sony Pictures. The Sony hack saw many studio executives’s sensitive and embarrassing emails leaked online. The hackers threatened to attack theaters on the opening day of the offending film, The Interview, and Sony pulled the plug on the movie, effectively censoring a major Hollywood studio. (Sony partially reversed course, allowing the movie to show in 331 independent theaters on Christmas Day, and to be streamed online.)

Technology journalists were quick to point out that, even though the cyber attack could be attributable to a nation state actor, it wasn’t particularly sophisticated. Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher likened it to a “software pipe bomb.”

But according to cyber-security professionals, the Sony hack may be a prelude to a cyber attack on United States infrastructure that could occur in 2015, as a result of a very different, self-inflicted document dump from the Department of Homeland Security in July.

Here’s the background: On July 3, DHS, which plays “key role” in responding to cyber-attacks on the nation, replied to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on a malware attack on Google called “Operation Aurora.”

Unfortunately, as Threatpost writer Dennis Fisher reports, DHS officials made a grave error in their response. DHS released more than 800 pages of documents related not to Operation Aurora but rather the Aurora Project, a 2007 research effort led by Idaho National Laboratory demonstrating how easy it was to hack elements in power and water systems.


The Aurora Project exposed a vulnerability common to many electrical generators, water pumps and other pieces of infrastructure, wherein an attacker remotely opens and closes key circuit breakers, throwing the machine’s rotating parts out of synchronization causing parts of the system to break down.

In 2007, in an effort to cast light on the vulnerability that was common to many electrical components, researchers from Idaho National Lab staged an Aurora attack live on CNN. The video is below.

How widespread is the Aurora vulnerability? In this 2013 article for Power Magazine:

The Aurora vulnerability affects much more than rotating equipment inside power plants. It affects nearly every electricity system worldwide and potentially any rotating equipment—whether it generates power or is essential to an industrial or commercial facility.
The article was written by Michael Swearingen, then manager for regulatory policy for Tri-County Electric Cooperative (now retired), Steven Brunasso, a technology operations manager for a municipal electric utility, Booz Allen Hamilton critical infrastructure specialist Dennis Huber, and Joe Weiss, a managing partner for Applied Control Solutions.

Weiss today is a Defense Department subcontractor working with the Navy’s Mission Assurance Division. His specific focus is fixing Aurora vulnerabilities. He calls DHS’s error “breathtaking.”

The vast majority of the 800 or so pages are of no consequence, says Weiss, but a small number contain information that could be extremely useful to someone looking to perpetrate an attack. “Three of their slides constitute a hit list of critical infrastructure. They tell you by name which [Pacific Gas and Electric] substations you could use to destroy parts of grid. They give the name of all the large pumping stations in California.”

The publicly available documents that DHS released do indeed contain the names and physical locations of specific Pacific Gas and Electric Substations that may be vulnerable to attack.

A Hacker's Hit List of American Infrastructure

Defense One shared the documents with Jeffrey Carr, CEO of the cyber-security firm Taia Global and the author of Inside Cyber Warfare: Mapping the Cyber Underworld. “I’d agree…This release certainly didn’t help make our critical infrastructure any safer and for certain types of attackers, this information could save them some time in their pre-attack planning,” he said.

Perpetrating an Aurora attack is not easy, but it becomes much easier the more knowledge a would-be attacker has on the specific equipment they may want to target.

* * *

In a 2011 paper for the Protective Relay Engineers’ 64th Annual Conference, Mark Zeller, a service provider with Schweitzer Engineering Laborites lays out—broadly—the information an attacker would have to have to execute a successful Aurora attack. “The perpetrator must have knowledge of the local power system, know and understand the power system interconnections, initiate the attack under vulnerable system load and impedance conditions and select a breaker capable of opening and closing quickly enough to operate within the vulnerability window.”

“Assuming the attack is initiated via remote electronic access, the perpetrator needs to understand and violate the electronic media, find a communications link that is not encrypted or is unknown to the operator, ensure no access alarm is sent to the operators, know all passwords, or enter a system that has no authentication.”

That sounds like a lot of hurdles to jump over. But utilities commonly rely on publicly available equipment and common communication protocols (DNP, Modbus, IEC 60870-5-103,IEC 61850, Telnet, QUIC4/QUIN, and Cooper 2179) to handle links between different parts their systems. It makes equipment easier to run, maintain, repair and replace. But in that convenience lies vulnerability.

In their Power Magazine article, the authors point out that “compromising any of these protocols would allow the malicious party to control these systems outside utility operations.”

Defense One reached out to DHS to ask them if they saw any risk in the accidental document dump. A DHS official wrote back with this response: “As part of a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request related to Operation Aurora, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Programs and Protection Directorate provided several previously released documents to the requestor. It appears that those documents may not have been specifically what the requestor was seeking; however, the documents were thoroughly reviewed for sensitive or classified information prior to their release to ensure that critical infrastructure security would not be compromised.”



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