Black Hat: Hack of mock oil rigs showcases potential for real-world "catastrophe"

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Researchers at the recently concluded Black Hat conference demonstrated how vulnerable supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems could be successfully targeted to trigger a “catastrophic failure.”

These systems relay important communications to industrial equipment, like oil pumps. But, Brian Meixell and Erick Forner, researchers at Cimation, a Houston-based firm specializing in tech solutions for the energy sector, used a mock oil tank to demonstrate to Black Hat attendees how programmable logic controllers (PLCs) can be manipulated to display incorrect temperature or oil level readings to equipment operators.

According to the duo, an attacker could easily spoof communications to integral devices in SCADA networks by exploiting the inadequate security of the Modbus/TCP protocol, which was developed in the 1970s to help manage communications between SCADA systems and devices, like PLCs, for industrial processes.

During their talk on Thursday, Forner told attendees that an attacker “could cause a complete environmental catastrophe” by targeting the Modbus protocol as it relays important operations data.

The hack required no vulnerability in Modbus – the researchers merely sent packets over the network by remotely inputting Python scripts [a programming language] to execute malicious commands.

During the demo, attendees watched as liquid rushed into the mock oil pump, offering a sobering illustration of how real attackers could create a similar scenario in an actual industrial environment.

“You can see what could happen,” Forner said. “It's just a demo, but it's a real threat."

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