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Security workers develop another method to hack PLCs at industrial plants

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November 8, 2016

We just learned today that security researchers have developed a new method to hack Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) at various industrial plants.

Ali Abbasi, a PhD student at the University of Twente, and Majid Hashemi, a research engineer at QuarksLab, successfully conducted an internet attack that involved tweaking the PIN configuration of a system chip in order to obfuscate the physical process a various commercial PLC controls.

"The attacks are feasible due to a lack of hardware interrupt vectors on the PLC's SoC and intensified by the PIN control subsystem's inability for hardware level pin configuration detections," the researchers asserted.

During a presentation at the Black Hat EU conference last week, the pair successfully demonstrated how it was possible to use the same approach to interfere with the on/off control of an LED to keep it permanently on while its associated controller thought it was blinking or off.

Typically, embedded controllers are utilized to control physical processes in power plants, factories and more, so that compromised PLC devices present a significant security risk to the industry.

The security researchers also showed how to circumvent current host-based detection mechanisms by avoiding common 'function hooking' or modifying OS kernel data structure.

Their presentation was entitled 'Ghost in the PLC-- Designing an Undetectable Programmable Logic Controller Rootkit' and the overall interest in the room was high according to various comments.

The pair hope their team's work will help lay the foundations for the smart and more secure design of robust detection techniques specifically tailored for PLCs.

Hashemi stated that the talk of the town on rootkits and associated hacking techniques against industrial PLC systems was "not about developing another Stuxnet" (the presumed US-Israeli cyber-weapon that physically hobbled high-speed centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear plant).

There are much easier methods to hack industrial control plants, according to Hashemi. "You see default passwords everywhere, even in critical systems. I've even seen passwords such as 123456789 if you can believe it," he asserted.

For his part, Gabriel Gonzalez, internet security consultant at the IO-Active security firm and an expert in SCADA security who attended the presentation, said that hackers would need to have secured control of a PLC system in order to plant a rootkit and manipulate its operation in the manner outlined by Abbasi and Hashemi.

Source: Ali Abbasi, a PhD student and Majid Hashemi.

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