February 16, 2017 By Douglas Bonderud 2 min read

There’s a trend in IT security: Companies and users assume a particular technology or platform is immune to exploitation and malware infection, but are eventually proven wrong by threats in the wild — and then the cycle repeats.

As noted by Bleeping Computer, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, more commonly known as Georgia Tech, are trying to shift the paradigm with proof-of-concept malware that targets what many experts consider to be next in line for malware-makers: supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and industrial control systems (ICS).

Since these systems control key industrial and municipal resources, a proof of concept (PoC) is a step in the right direction. Companies need to make changes before concept becomes compromise.

Spotty SCADA Security

It’s no surprise that many companies still consider SCADA and ICS beyond the reach of malware. Given their roles in controlling physical devices, they’re often air gapped, or connected only to internal networks.

However, according to the Georgia Tech team, that’s not always the case. Researchers found several instances of connected programmable logic controllers (PLCs) used to acquire data from physical systems and relay them to SCADA networks, which were connected to the internet at large and easily vulnerable.

This isn’t the first time PLCs and SCADA systems have come under fire. Last summer, cybercriminals used a Stuxnet-like attack called Irongate to modify a specific ICS process. Then, in November 2016, developer Ali Abbasi created a way to swap pin configurations in PLCs and permanently modify their output.

The supposed safety of SCADA and ICS systems no longer exists. It’s better to develop countermeasures against PoC attacks than to wait for the next Heartbleed or Shellshock to strike.

Researchers Create Proof-of-Concept Malware

To illuminate the threat industrial organizations now face, researchers developed LogicLocker, a strain of malware able to detect when it’s running on PLC-connected software. The team detailed this experiment in a report titled, “Out of Control: Ransomware for Industrial Control Systems.”

Using Shodan, the researchers identified “thousands of PLCs directly connected to the internet.” In some cases, native security on these PLCs was so poor that attackers could compromise them directly. For those with slightly better defenses, standard tactics were enough to infect workstations and then move laterally into an ICS.

Once systems were infected, the team was able to lock down PLC devices and change their parameters, creating a kind of next-level ransomware. But instead of grabbing consumer or mission-critical data and holding it hostage, attackers could fundamentally alter industrial processes and demand full payment for restored function.

SCADA Malware on the Horizon

These processes cover just about everything, since PLCs are used to control motors, valves, sensors and other machinery in power plants, water treatment facilities and large public spaces such as hospitals and shopping malls.

Imagine what would happen if attackers were to gain access to the PLCs that control local power grids, for example. They could plunge entire cities into darkness by changing specific parameters and then demand a payout. With enough time, IT security experts might be able to undo the damage. Given the large number of controllers in use and the effort required to fix each one, however, companies are more likely to pay up than to risk public harm if a manual reset is necessary.

SCADA malware is on the horizon, but the research revealed a rapidly rising star. Companies need to take a hard look at their existing PLC and ICS layouts to minimize outward-facing connections and ensure stock security measures are replaced with less vulnerable variations.

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