Entries Tagged "infrastructure"

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Human and Technology Failures in Nuclear Facilities

This is interesting:

We can learn a lot about the potential for safety failures at US nuclear plants from the July 29, 2012, incident in which three religious activists broke into the supposedly impregnable Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Fort Knox of uranium. Once there, they spilled blood and spray painted “work for peace not war” on the walls of a building housing enough uranium to build thousands of nuclear weapons. They began hammering on the building with a sledgehammer, and waited half an hour to be arrested. If an 82-year-old nun with a heart condition and two confederates old enough to be AARP members could do this, imagine what a team of determined terrorists could do.

[…]

Where some other countries often rely more on guards with guns, the United States likes to protect its nuclear facilities with a high-tech web of cameras and sensors. Under the Nunn-Lugar program, Washington has insisted that Russia adopt a similar approach to security at its own nuclear sites­—claiming that an American cultural preference is objectively superior. The Y-12 incident shows the problem with the American approach of automating security. At the Y-12 facility, in addition to the three fences the protestors had to cut through with wire-cutters, there were cameras and motion detectors. But we too easily forget that technology has to be maintained and watched to be effective. According to Munger, 20 percent of the Y-12 cameras were not working on the night the activists broke in. Cameras and motion detectors that had been broken for months had gone unrepaired. A security guard was chatting rather than watching the feed from a camera that did work. And guards ignored the motion detectors, which were so often set off by local wildlife that they assumed all alarms were false positives….

Instead of having government forces guard the site, the Department of Energy had hired two contractors: Wackenhut and Babcock and Wilcox. Wackenhut is now owned by the British company G4S, which also botched security for the 2012 London Olympics, forcing the British government to send 3,500 troops to provide security that the company had promised but proved unable to deliver. Private companies are, of course, driven primarily by the need to make a profit, but there are surely some operations for which profit should not be the primary consideration.

Babcock and Wilcox was supposed to maintain the security equipment at the Y-12 site, while Wackenhut provided the guards. Poor communication between the two companies was one reason sensors and cameras were not repaired. Furthermore, Babcock and Wilcox had changed the design of the plant’s Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, making it a more vulnerable aboveground building, in order to cut costs. And Wackenhut was planning to lay off 70 guards at Y-12, also to cut costs.

There’s an important lesson here. Security is a combination of people, process, and technology. All three have to be working in order for security to work.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on July 14, 2015 at 5:53 AMView Comments

The Democratization of Cyberattack

The thing about infrastructure is that everyone uses it. If it’s secure, it’s secure for everyone. And if it’s insecure, it’s insecure for everyone. This forces some hard policy choices.

When I was working with the Guardian on the Snowden documents, the one top-secret program the NSA desperately did not want us to expose was QUANTUM. This is the NSA’s program for what is called packet injection—basically, a technology that allows the agency to hack into computers.

Turns out, though, that the NSA was not alone in its use of this technology. The Chinese government uses packet injection to attack computers. The cyberweapons manufacturer Hacking Team sells packet injection technology to any government willing to pay for it. Criminals use it. And there are hacker tools that give the capability to individuals as well.

All of these existed before I wrote about QUANTUM. By using its knowledge to attack others rather than to build up the internet’s defenses, the NSA has worked to ensure that anyone can use packet injection to hack into computers.

This isn’t the only example of once-top-secret US government attack capabilities being used against US government interests. StingRay is a particular brand of IMSI catcher, and is used to intercept cell phone calls and metadata. This technology was once the FBI’s secret, but not anymore. There are dozens of these devices scattered around Washington, DC, as well as the rest of the country, run by who-knows-what government or organization. By accepting the vulnerabilities in these devices so the FBI can use them to solve crimes, we necessarily allow foreign governments and criminals to use them against us.

Similarly, vulnerabilities in phone switches—SS7 switches, for those who like jargon—have been long used by the NSA to locate cell phones. This same technology is sold by the US company Verint and the UK company Cobham to third-world governments, and hackers have demonstrated the same capabilities at conferences. An eavesdropping capability that was built into phone switches to enable lawful intercepts was used by still-unidentified unlawful intercepters in Greece between 2004 and 2005.

These are the stories you need to keep in mind when thinking about proposals to ensure that all communications systems can be eavesdropped on by government. Both the FBI’s James Comey and UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently proposed limiting secure cryptography in favor of cryptography they can have access to.

But here’s the problem: technological capabilities cannot distinguish based on morality, nationality, or legality; if the US government is able to use a backdoor in a communications system to spy on its enemies, the Chinese government can use the same backdoor to spy on its dissidents.

Even worse, modern computer technology is inherently democratizing. Today’s NSA secrets become tomorrow’s PhD theses and the next day’s hacker tools. As long as we’re all using the same computers, phones, social networking platforms, and computer networks, a vulnerability that allows us to spy also allows us to be spied upon.

We can’t choose a world where the US gets to spy but China doesn’t, or even a world where governments get to spy and criminals don’t. We need to choose, as a matter of policy, communications systems that are secure for all users, or ones that are vulnerable to all attackers. It’s security or surveillance.

As long as criminals are breaking into corporate networks and stealing our data, as long as totalitarian governments are spying on their citizens, as long as cyberterrorism and cyberwar remain a threat, and as long as the beneficial uses of computer technology outweighs the harmful uses, we have to choose security. Anything else is just too dangerous.

This essay previously appeared on Vice Motherboard.

EDITED TO ADD (3/4): Slashdot thread.

Posted on March 2, 2015 at 6:49 AMView Comments

2008 Cyberattack Against Turkish Oil Pipeline

Interesting article talks about the 2008 cyberattack against a Turkish oil pipeline:

For western intelligence agencies, the blowout was a watershed event. Hackers had shut down alarms, cut off communications and super-pressurized the crude oil in the line, according to four people familiar with the incident who asked not to be identified because details of the investigation are confidential. The main weapon at valve station 30 on Aug. 5, 2008, was a keyboard.

Kurdish separatists in Turkey claimed that they did it. The whole article is worth reading.

Posted on December 23, 2014 at 7:02 AMView Comments

Fake Cell Towers Found in Norway

In yet another example of what happens when you build an insecure communications infrastructure, fake cell phone towers have been found in Oslo. No one knows who has been using them to eavesdrop.

This is happening in the US, too. Remember the rule: we’re all using the same infrastructure, so we can either keep it insecure so we—and everyone else—can use it to spy, or we can secure it so that no one can use it to spy.

Posted on December 16, 2014 at 11:34 AMView Comments

Hacking Traffic Lights

New paper: “Green Lights Forever: Analyzing the Security of Traffic Infrastructure,” Branden Ghena, William Beyer, Allen Hillaker, Jonathan Pevarnek, and J. Alex Halderman.

Abstract: The safety critical nature of traffic infrastructure requires that it be secure against computer-based attacks, but this is not always the case. We investigate a networked traffic signal system currently deployed in the United States and discover a number of security flaws that exist due to systemic failures by the designers. We leverage these flaws to create attacks which gain control of the system, and we successfully demonstrate them on the deployment in coordination with authorities. Our attacks show that an adversary can control traffic infrastructure to cause disruption, degrade safety, or gain an unfair advantage. We make recommendations on how to improve existing systems and discuss the lessons learned for embedded systems security in general.

News article.

Posted on August 28, 2014 at 6:14 AMView Comments

Overreacting to Risk

This is a crazy overreaction:

A 19-year-old man was caught on camera urinating in a reservoir that holds Portland’s drinking water Wednesday, according to city officials.

Now the city must drain 38 million gallons of water from Reservoir 5 at Mount Tabor Park in southeast Portland.

I understand the natural human disgust reaction, but do these people actually think that their normal drinking water is any more pure? That a single human is that much worse than all the normal birds and other animals? A few ounces distributed amongst 38 million gallons is negligible.

Another story.

EDITED TO ADD (5/14): They didn’t flush the reservoir after all, but they did move the water.

Posted on April 18, 2014 at 6:26 AMView Comments

Sixth Movie-Plot Threat Contest Winner

On April 1, I announced the Sixth Mostly-Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest:

For this year’s contest, I want a cyberwar movie-plot threat. (For those who don’t know, a movie-plot threat is a scare story that would make a great movie plot, but is much too specific to build security policy around.) Not the Chinese attacking our power grid or shutting off 911 emergency services—people are already scaring our legislators with that sort of stuff. I want something good, something no one has thought of before.

On May 15, I announced the five semi-finalists. Voting continued through the end of the month, and the winner is Russell Thomas:

It’s November 2015 and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) is underway in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Over the past year, ocean level rise has done permanent damage to critical infrastructure in Maldives, killing off tourism and sending the economy into freefall. The Small Island Developing States are demanding immediate relief from the Green Climate Fund, but action has been blocked. Conspiracy theories flourish. For months, the rhetoric between developed and developing countries has escalated to veiled and not-so-veiled threats. One person in elites of the Small Island Developing States sees an opportunity to force action.

He’s Sayyid Abdullah bin Yahya, an Indonesian engineer and construction magnate with interests in Bahrain, Bangladesh, and Maldives, all directly threatened by recent sea level rise. Bin Yahya’s firm installed industrial control systems on several flood control projects, including in the Maldives, but these projects are all stalled and unfinished for lack of financing. He also has a deep, abiding enmity against Holland and the Dutch people, rooted in the 1947 Rawagede massacre that killed his grandfather and father. Like many Muslims, he declared that he was personally insulted by Queen Beatrix’s gift to the people of Indonesia on the 50th anniversary of the massacre—a Friesian cow. “Very rude. That’s part of the Dutch soul, this rudeness”, he said at the time. Also like many Muslims, he became enraged and radicalized in 2005 when the Dutch newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the Prophet.

Of all the EU nations, Holland is most vulnerable to rising sea levels. It has spent billions on extensive barriers and flood controls, including the massive Oosterscheldekering storm surge barrier, designed and built in the 80s to protect against a 10,000-year storm surge. While it was only used 24 times between 1986 and 2010, in the last two years the gates have been closed 46 times.

As the UNCCC conference began in November 2015, the Oosterscheldekering was closed yet again to hold off the surge of an early winter storm. Even against low expectations, the first day’s meetings went very poorly. A radicalized and enraged delegation from the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) presented an ultimatum, leading to denunciations and walkouts. “What can they do—start a war?” asked the Dutch Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment in an unguarded moment. There was talk of canceling the rest of the conference.

Overnight, there are a series of news stories in China, South America, and United States reporting malfunctions of dams that resulted in flash floods and death of tens or hundreds people in several cases. Web sites associated with the damns were all defaced with the text of the SIDS ultimatum. In the morning, all over Holland there were reports of malfunctions of control equipment associated with flood monitoring and control systems. The winter storm was peaking that day with an expected surge of 7 meters (22 feet), larger than the Great Flood of 1953. With the Oosterscheldekering working normally, this is no worry. But at 10:43am, the storm gates unexpectedly open.

Microsoft Word claims it’s 501 words, but I’m letting that go.

This is the first professional—a researcher—who has won the contest. Be sure to check out his blogs, and his paper at WEIS this year.

Congratulations, Russell Thomas. Your box of fabulous prizes will be on its way to you soon.

History: The First Movie-Plot Threat Contest rules and winner. The Second Movie-Plot Threat Contest rules, semifinalists, and winner. The Third Movie-Plot Threat Contest rules, semifinalists, and winner. The Fourth Movie-Plot Threat Contest rules and winner. The Fifth Movie-Plot Threat Contest rules, semifinalists, and winner.

Posted on July 5, 2013 at 12:08 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.