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News and comment from Control Engineering process industries editor, Peter Welander

Cyber security and the human factor

July 20, 2010


Yesterday we received a press release from Siemens warning users of a potential cyber security problem with one of its systems: “Siemens was notified about the malware program (Trojan) that is targeting the Siemens software Simatic WinCC and PCS 7 on July 14.  The company immediately assembled a team of experts to evaluate the situation and is working with Microsoft and the distributors of virus scan programs, to analyze the likely consequences and the exact mode of operation of the virus. It has so far been established that the Trojan, which spreads via USB sticks and uses a Microsoft security breach, can affect Windows computers from XP upward.

It certainly looks like Siemens is taking appropriate measures to deal with this problem. If you have a system that may be affected, you should contact your Siemens representative immediately.

Whether this particular case affects you or not, you should ask yourself if you are taking appropriate precautions with your systems. Note that the malware spreads via USB sticks. That means someone in your plant has to insert an infected USB stick into your system for the infection to occur. The malware cannot gain access to your system without the help of someone inside. The answer? Make sure your people know that they must not bring in outside disks, memory sticks, software, etc. Nothing like that should ever get loaded onto your control networks. I’ve heard some users suggest that open USB ports on hardware used in control applications should be filled with epoxy. At first I thought that was hyperbole, but it’s probably a very practical suggestion.

If you are paying attention to cyber security matters, you should know that human factors are just as important as technical solutions. The most sophisticated locks won’t help your house if someone leaves the front door open. Control Engineering published an article on this very point in 2007, Cyber Security—The Human Factor. Allow me to quote from a relevant paragraph: “One attack vector for hackers to get into a company is to scatter thumb drives around the parking lot and grounds of the subject company. People going to work find them and can’t resist plugging one in. File names that show up sound interesting (a celebrity sex tape, for example) so someone will open one out of curiosity. A program launches that makes the person’s computer contact the hacker and allow a way to get in. It all happens so fast. Is that really possible? ‘A warning has been released about a family of worms that spreads by copying itself onto removable drives such as USB memory sticks, and then automatically runs when the device is next connected to a computer.’”

We published another related article in 2009, Securing Legacy Control Systems. Here’s a relevant quote about people from Sean McGurk (DHS) and Marty Edwards (Idaho National Labs) that offers words to live by: “Procedures are important, but people have to understand their role in keeping the plant safe. The DHS reports that social engineering is one of the biggest attack vectors. McGurk laments, ‘How often do we see vulnerabilities and exploits that are conducted as a result of poor operational practices because people don’t understand the need for security.’

“Marty Edwards, Idaho National Laboratory DHS CSSP manager, outlines the kind of cultural change that needs to happen: ‘One of the biggest challenges we have in security—whether it’s in control systems, or IT, or physical security—is creating that security culture, and you can do that regardless of the vintage of the equipment that you have. It’s your personnel. It’s your training. It’s the culture that they operate in.’

“From a safety perspective, industrial and processing areas have had that culture for some time, says Edwards. ‘You don’t do anything in a plant without thinking about what the safety ramifications are,’ he adds. ‘We must instill that same culture, so that before I do anything, I think about the security ramifications. Should I post a network drawing at a user group conference that contains all the most intimate details of our control system? That’s a change that everybody can make immediately, and it costs a lot less than replacing equipment.’”

Now, where did I leave that epoxy?