Cyber attacks on systems at a water utility, a scaring reality

Pierluigi Paganini March 23, 2016

According to the recent Verizon breach digest for March 2016 hackers breached a water utility and manipulated systems for water treatment and flow control.

The story that I’m telling you is very disturbing, according to the Verizon breach digest for March 2016 a group of hackers breached a water utility and manipulated systems for water treatment and flow control.

The Verizon breach digest reports a number of cyber attacks including one against an unnamed water utility, described in the document as the Kemuri Water Company (KWC).

The operator behind the water utility hired Verizon to assess its systems, during the investigation the experts discovered evidence of cyber attacks.

Comment Crew hit decoy water facility

The experts discovered a desolating situation, a number of systems affected by critical vulnerabilities were publicly exposed on the Internet and the overall architecture was including outdated operation technology (OT) systems.

“The OT end of the water district relied heavily on antiquated computer systems running operating systems from ten plus years ago.” states the report.

The entire control infrastructure was relying on an IBM AS/400 system, a system dated 1988, that was used by the operator to control every OT device in the facility (i.e. valve and flow control applications) and IT functions (i.e. billing). More disconcerting the fact that a single employee, or an attacker, could manage the entire utility by accessing the IBM AS/400 system. If a data breach were to occur at KWC, this SCADA platform would be the first place to look.

“Even more concerning, many critical IT and OT functions ran on a single AS400 system. KWC referred to this AS400 system as its “SCADA platform.” This system functioned as a router with direct connections into several networks, ran the water district’s valve and flow control application that was responsible for manipulating hundreds of Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), housed customer PII and associated billing information, as well as KWC’s financials.”

Experts discovered that the KWC facility was targeted by hacktivists had that breached the internal architecture by exploiting a vulnerability in the payment application web server.

Once compromised the server, the attackers obtained the internal IP address and admin login credentials for the AS/400 system, this information was used to steal 2.5 million records containing customer and payment data. Fortunately the attackers haven’t used the stolen data to carry on fraudulent activity.

By accessing the AS/400 system the attackers were also able to completely gain control over water flow and the amount of chemicals used to treat the water.

During the 60-day period of the assessment, the experts discovered four connections to systems at the water utility. The threat actors modified application settings, fortunately without having the necessary knowledge to cause serious damage. The good news is that alerting systems allowed an early identification of any anomaly in controlled processes.

Now image possible effects of a cyber-attack launched by a persistent  nation-state attacker with a deep knowledge of the internal process at the water utility.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – water utility, hacking)

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