Hacking Traffic lights and other control systems is not so hard

Pierluigi Paganini May 01, 2014

Security experts Cesar Cerrudo conducted a study on the security of components within control traffic lights and similar electronic systems.

The hacking of control systems for traffic lights or cyber grids is a prerogative of sci-fi series and movies, hackers could be able to target them causing serious problems.

Cesar Cerrudo, CTO at IOActive, has conducted a study to investigate on the security of components within control systems for traffic lights and electronic signs in different cities around the world discovering an alarming reality. The researcher has discovered many devices vulnerable to a number of cyber attacks, for example spreading a malware within a network of similar systems.

Traffic lights and electronic signs are controlled by automated systems that exactly as any other smart devices could be hacked. Cerrudo analyzed architecture of traffic lights deployed in many countries, including the United States, the U.K., Australia, China, and Canada.

Traffic lights

Cerrudo will present the results of his study next month at the Infiltrate security conference, when he will also provide detailed information on the security flaws discovered and the components affected.

The researcher said that the vulnerabilities could be exploited by an attacker using the right equipment at a suitable distance.

“The vulnerabilities I found allow anyone to take complete control of the devices and send fake data to traffic control systems. Basically anyone could cause a traffic mess by launching an attack with a simple exploit programmed on cheap hardware ($100 or less),” explained Cerrudo in a blog post.

He revealed that it is possible to use a commercially available unmanned vehicle to conduct the attack:

“I even tested the attack launched from a drone flying at over 650 feet, and it worked! Theoretically, an attack could be launched from up to 1 or 2 miles away with a better drone and hardware equipment, I just used a common, commercially available drone and cheap hardware. Since it seems flying a drone in the US is not illegal and anyone will be able to get drones on demand soon, I would be worried about attacks from the sky in the US.”

The researcher ethically reported the security vulnerabilities the ICS-CERT, but once informed the vendors they refused to consider them as serious flaws arguing that the security issues in reality are the expected behavior.

“I tried several times to make ICS-CERT and the vendor understand that these issues were serious, but I couldn’t convince them. In the end I said, if the vendor doesn’t think they are vulnerable then OK, I’m done with this; I have tried hard, and I don’t want to continue wasting time and effort. Also, since DHS is aware of this (through ICS-CERT), and it seems that this is not critical nor important to them, then there isn’t anything else I can do except to go public,” he said.

“It’s possible to make traffic lights (depending on the configuration) stay green more or less time, stay red and not change to green (I bet many of you have experienced something like this as a result of driving during non-traffic hours late at night or being on a bike or in a small car), or flash. It’s also possible to cause electronic signs to display incorrect speed limits and instructions and to make ramp meters allow cars on the freeway faster or slower than needed,” Cerrudo said.

Cerrudo hasn’t revealed the name of the manufacturer of vulnerable devices, he highlighted that a number of resellers rebrand them and sell to customers, reminding us the possible repercussion on the security of citizens. To evaluate the impact, let’s consider the statistics proposed in the post:

“In 2012, there were an estimated 5,615,000 police-reported traffic crashes in which 33,561 people were killed and 2,362,000 people were injured; 3,950,000 crashes resulted in property damage only.” US DoT National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Traffic Safety Facts

“Road crashes cost the U.S. $230.6 billion per year, or an average of $820 per person”Association for Safe International Road Travel: Annual US Road Crash Statistics

Security of vital infrastructure is a critical goal for every cyber strategy, governments must seriously consider the possible risks related to cyber attacks.

“This should be another wake up call for governments to evaluate the security of devices/products before using them in critical infrastructure, and also a request to providers of government devices/products to take security and security vulnerability reports seriously.” said Cerrudo.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  Traffic light systems, Critical Infrastructure)

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