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Hack raises fears of unsafe energy networks
From: William Knowles <wk () c4i org>
Date: Thu, 14 Jun 2001 01:00:17 -0500 (CDT)
By Robert Lemos
Special to CNET News.com
June 13, 2001, 9:15 p.m. PT
A recent attack on the heart of Californias power distribution center
underscores the danger of connecting critical resources to networks
that may never be truly secure from malicious hackers.
An intruder who cracked the security of two Web servers at the
California Independent System Operator (ISO)--the non-profit
corporation that controls the distribution of 75 percent of the
state's power--was inexperienced and benefited from human error and
sheer luck, sources close to an investigation into the attack said
The breach, which came to light following a Los Angeles Times report
last Saturday, should remind those responsible for critical systems
that simple mistakes can lead to disasters.
"We haven't learned to protect our critical infrastructure even though
we have been working on this for a while," said Chris Rouland,
director of internal research and development for network protection
firm Internet Security Systems. "They did just about everything wrong
in deploying systems in a hostile environment."
California's power grid has come under increasing scrutiny as soaring
utility prices and rolling blackouts throughout the summer threaten to
disrupt business in the state. On a national level, the threat to
power networks is not an idle one.
In 1997, the National Security Agency--the United States' information
watchdog--predicted such problems when a military exercise dubbed
"Eligible Receiver" gained simulated control of the major power grids
in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington in four days.
How it happened
The ISO hack took advantage of a security flaw in the agency's Solaris
server systems, which was discovered in March. The attacker took
control of two servers that were supposed to be protected by a
firewall. In reality, the servers had not been secured and were
connected directly to the Internet, according to sources close to the
While the two Web servers were part of a development network, the
attacker may have been able to work the initial breach into hacking
more critical systems, said Rouland, who heads ISS's vulnerability
assessment team, dubbed X-Force.
"Once the attacker gets a hold of a perimeter system, it gets them in
the door and they can frequently leverage that into accessing the rest
of the network," he said.
In addition to connecting the servers directly to the Internet, the
Cal-ISO system administrators left the servers with all the software
installed by the default set-up, leaving numerous other
vulnerabilities open to exploitation.
The system also lacked the ability to collect a record of events in a
secure place, instead leaving them on the computers that the intruder
could access. The investigators could not easily detect which files
had been changed. A rudimentary root kit--a tool set used by Internet
attackers to take total control of a system--had been installed, but
other details could not be discovered.
"There was an obvious attempt made to penetrate our systems," said
Greg Fishman, spokesman for Cal-ISO, who would not give any more
details. "They were able to achieve minimal penetration into a system
that we use to demonstrate software. This was never a threat to our
Even so, some questioned the Cal-ISO's wisdom of connecting a
development system to the Internet, even if protected by a firewall,
as originally intended.
"Testing a system doesn't require that it be on the Internet," said
Jay Dyson, senior consultant for online security firm OneSecure. "I
don't know what they were thinking putting the test system live on the
The security holes left the system wide open to any hacker of minimal
skill--and the intruder in question, Dyson said, was an amateur.
"There is no elegance to this intrusion," Dyson said. "This is just a
case of throwing enough mud and hitting something. A skilled hacker
would have been able to hide his tracks better."
Turning up the heat
The fact that even an amateur could get into the companys networks has
officials in the state's capitol putting pressure on the Cal-ISO.
"I think it is a matter of intense concern that we have an ISO that
allowed a breach of security through what appeared to be sheer
incompetence," said state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks.
McClintock has issued a request under California's Open Records Act
for all the documents concerning the break-in. The intrusion was
discovered on May 11, but legislators werent informed even a month
after the breach occurred.
This fact had McClintock up in arms.
"I am in the process of preparing a formal request to investigate this
matter," he said. "Very soon we will know more."
"Communications without intelligence is noise; Intelligence
without communications is irrelevant." Gen Alfred. M. Gray, USMC
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- Hack raises fears of unsafe energy networks William Knowles (Jun 14)