Secure Your SCADA System for Water Distribution

Secure Your SCADA System for Water DistributionWith the ever-growing threat of cyber terrorism, cyber security experts are becoming concerned with the vulnerability of SCADA systems used to monitor and control water distribution systems.

As each SCADA system has a slightly different configuration, each has a different degree of vulnerability. Architectural changes over the past 20+ years were usually implemented gradually, leaving some elements of a SCADA distribution more vulnerable than others.

Industrial Control Systems Security Assessment

Not only are there many vulnerabilities that could give hackers access to water distribution systems, there are many reasons they might want to commit such an attack:

  • A “proof of concept” for weak defenses
  • Extortion/financial gain
  • Industrial espionage
  • Political reasons, such as terrorism or international leverage

As SCADA systems for water distribution are a matter of public safety as well as national security, securing these sites through both physical and software security solutions is crucial.

How Hackers Gain Access to SCADA Systems

As SCADA systems become more sophisticated, they also present more opportunities for cyber criminals. Original SCADA systems used Remote Terminal Unit’s (RTU’s) equipment to communicate externally using specialized, vendor specific protocols. Cyber criminals could hijack a RTU’s signal, covertly reprogram the system to take remote commands, and pass along the infected signal to other components of the system. Even today, sometimes infecting a SCADA network is as simple as sending a signal over-the-air near a RTU with a laptop.

With each additional feature that is added to the RTU, hackers could feasibly attack a different function. This might be something like disabling a pump alarm while making a single pump work too hard, thus destroying the pump and limiting local water supply.

Making matters worse, it is no longer a matter of time before SCADA systems for water distribution are compromised. Scada systems were not designed to protect against cyber attacks, only to detect and correct for minor human errors. The adoption of new technologies makes them vulnerable to infiltration. 

A traditional security measure for SCADA networks has been to create an air gap to segregate it from the internet and, as the theory goes, threats. However, SCADA and ICS air gaps have proven to be less than effective at fighting off attacks.

While it may be tempting to keep a SCADA network limited to on-site access points, the fact of the matter is there are simply too many benefits that come from internet connectivity. More to the point, these benefits far outweigh the negligible, arguably nonexistent, security benefits of a segregated and air-gapped SCADA system. For example, equipment providers can perform critical maintenance over the internet, providing significant cost savings in transportation and on-site work time.

Another example is having off-site workstations in the event the on-site control room becomes disabled. However, having these off-site workstations as a backup (and convenience) also opens them up to simple social engineering hacks and password vulnerabilities. This means system-specific security protocols need to be implemented.

Securing SCADA for Water Systems

To begin securing any SCADA system, start with an ICS vulnerability assessment. The United States Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) provides tools, assessments, and other resources consultants can use to identify vulnerabilities. Once vulnerabilities have been assessed, specific action plans can be developed.

Physical SCADA System Security

Physical security measures for SCADA systems may include:

  • Backup power systems
  • Redundant networks
  • Distributed operator workstations
  • Alarm systems that alert operators to SCADA component failures
  • On-site security such as IP cameras, keyless entry, motion detectors, and discrete inputs

Cyber Security for SCADA Systems

  • SCADA systems are typically distributed through entire water operations. This means the entire system needs to be secured; otherwise, a single breach could spread and infect the whole system.
  • Cyber security measures to protect SCADA systems from cyber attacks may include:

Ensuring your SCADA system is secure is more than a good suggestion — it’s a matter of securing one of our nation’s critical infrastructures. Contact Patriot Technologies’ experienced team of SCADA consultants, and let’s discuss how to remove vulnerabilities and protect your system from any threat.