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Nuclear Facilities are in ‘Denial’ to the risk of a ‘Serious Cyber Attack’

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A new report makes the damning claim that nuclear power plants around the world have an “element of denial” about the risks of cyberattacks and are ignorant of their inherent cybersecurity flaws.

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Cybersecurity risks concerning nuclear facilities are on an upward scale. The growing risks are due to the increasing reliance on “off-the-shelf” software that helps in cutting costs but are a lot easier to hack, according to a new report by London-based NGO Chatham House.

The report expanded on a number of threats overshadowing nuclear installations and found industrial, cultural and technical challenges facing nuclear facilities on a global scale.

The full report titled “Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities – Understanding the Risks” is available to download here (PDF).

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Caroline Baylon, the report’s author stated:

“Cyber security is still new to many in the nuclear industry.

“They, are really good at safety and, after 9/11, they’ve got really good at physical security. But they have barely grappled with cyber.”

The comprehensive study was conducted by the non-profit over an 18-month period and involved interviews with 30 practitioners engaged in nuclear issues and cybersecurity in various field including industry, government, international organizations and academic institutions. The interviews were extended to experts from “the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan, Ukraine, Russia, Canada, and Germany.”

Industrial control systems experts & IT experts from major international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Network, and the Information Security Agency (ENISA) were also interviewed.

Recent High-Profile Cyber Attacks on Nuclear Facilities

nuclear power plantThe report also lists several known recent high-profile cyber attacks targeting nuclear facilities. The “most highly sophisticated publicly known cyberattack” was the attack targeting two nuclear facilities in Iran by a complex worm dubbed “Stuxnet,” the likes of which the world hadn’t seen before.

The facilities that were the targets of known cyber attacks between 1992 and 2014 are:

Ignalina nuclear power plant, Lithuania, 1992. – A technician intentionally plugged the industrial control system with a virus, which, he claimed, was to highlight the vulnerabilities inherent in the cybersecurity setup of the power plant. The white-hat was promptly arrested by the police.

Three years later, the Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary talked about the merging of nuclear and cyber terrorism.The hacking of a computer at the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania could have resulted in a disaster similar to that in Chernobyl.

The David-Besse nuclear power plant, USA, 2003. – The nuclear power plant based in Ohio was infected by the Slammer worm that exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft’s SQL 2000 database server software.

Spreading itself onto other machines, it proceeded to infect the SCADA system. From there, it took control of the safety parameter display system (SPDS), a safety monitoring system containing temperature sensors and radiation detectors and made it unavailable for almost five hours. Luckily the power plant’s reactor was not in operation at the time.

The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant, USA, 2006 – The nuclear plant in Alabama suffered a malfunction of both the reactor recirculation pipes (pipes needed to cool the reactor) and the condensate demineralizer controller (a PLC). Both devices operate with microprocessors that send and receive data while plugged into an Ethernet network.

An excessive amount of traffic led to the malfunction and failure of both devices. It was only after the manual shut down of a plant’s unit that the nuclear power plant avoided a meltdown.

The Hatch nuclear power plant, USA, 2008 – An engineer from a company contracted to manage the nuclear power plant’s tech operations installed an update to a computer on the plant’s business network. The computer was also hooked into the plant’s control system networks with the manual update designed to synchronize data between the two networks.

When the computer was restarted after the update, the synchronization reset the data within the control system to zero, for a brief moment. This reading was enough for the plant’s safety system to deem that the water level required to cool the reactor was down to zero, promptly shutting down the plant for 48 hours, automatically.

Natanz nuclear facility and Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran, 2010 – The most high-profile incident of them all,  the two Iranian nuclear installations were the targets of a sophisticated worm called Stuxnet. The incident and the worm causing the incident has been elaborated upon further below.

Unnamed nuclear power plant, Russia, 2010 – While the plant hasn’t been identified, its air-gapped internal network was ‘badly infected by ‘Struxnet.’ The incident was revealed by Eugene Kaspersky of Kaspersky Lab.

Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. commercial network, South Korea, 2014 – In an attack that was attributed to state-sponsored North Korean hackers, a phishing campaign resulted in the breach of blueprints and manuals of two nuclear reactors. So too was personal data belonging to 10,000 company employees.

Hackers warned the operator to shut down 3 of the 23 reactors or face ‘destruction.’ The owner-operator ignored the ultimatum and it turned out to be an empty threat.

The Stuxnet Worm. The Invasive Threat is real.

Recent high-profile cyber attacks, including the deployment of the sophisticated 2010 Stuxnet worm, have raised new concerns about the cyber security vulnerabilities of nuclear facilities.

In making a reference to Stuxnet, the report highlighted the worm that infected computers at Iran’s nuclear facilities after it was uploaded through a flash drive.

The vulnerabilities at control systems in nuclear facilities

The vulnerabilities at control systems in nuclear facilities.

Expanding on the bug, the report read:

“There is a pervading myth that nuclear facilities are ‘air gapped’ – or completely isolated from the public internet -and that this protects them from cyber attack.

Yet, not only can air gaps be breached with nothing more than a flash drive (noting Stuxnet), but the commercial benefits of internet connectivity mean that nuclear facilities may have virtual private networks (VPNs) and other connections installed, sometimes undocumented or forgotten by contractors and other legitimate third-party operators.

The infamous worm was found infecting industrial Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, that are commonly referred to as the ‘backbone of modern industry’, and in use all around the world.

Gaining system-level access on computers running Windows, the sophisticated worm used false certificates to evade anti-virus scanners by making its files appear like they came from a legitimate source.

After infecting a computer, the Stuxnet worm with its shadow capabilities is designed to remain dormant until the computer connects to a specific SCADA system manufactured by Siemens. The payload is only activated with the connectivity is established. Until then, the worm spreads by replicating itself onto other computers through a shared network and USB flash drives.

Security researchers believe the Stuxnet worm was jointly designed by the US and Israeli governments, specifically tasked to disrupt Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Altogether, the worm is said to have partially destroyed around 1,000 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran.

Significantly, cybercriminals with lesser capabilities than an advanced nation-state have now copied the worm’s advanced techniques and code to develop their own malware.

Once Stuxnet’s existence became publicly known, hackers around the world took inspiration from the way it functioned and incorporated some of its features into malware to suit their own purposes.

“The same techniques could be adopted to launch attacks on other nuclear facilities.”

The Threat of Terrorism and Physical Destruction

Radical groups such as ISIS with its recruiting via “its sophisticated use of Facebook and websites with their use of social media” and “sufficient financial resources” could potentially employ a “hack for hire” company or a group of hackers to target and carry out a cyberattack against a nuclear installation, the report notes.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Ms Baylon added that “it would be extremely difficult to cause a meltdown at a plant or compromise one but it would be possible for a state actor to do, certainly.”

The point is, that risk is probability times consequence. And even though the probability might be low, the consequence of a cyber incident at a nuclear plant is extremely high.

Inept Security Practices

Some nuclear facilities still operate with default passwords on their equipment. “Hackers can often gain access more easily than managers of nuclear facilities expect [them to],” when default passwords of equipment manufacturers such as Honeywell and Siemens, the likes of ‘1234’, are shared by hackers on web forums.

Such factory-set default passwords are still being used “everywhere” in computer systems that regulate nuclear processes.

The Call for an Organizational Response

The report calls for a coordinated effort among the civil nuclear sector to bring about a cybersecurity regime that “functions intelligently and responsively within its area of concern, remaining absolutely current with the threat picture, concomitant risks and the arsenal of available countermeasures.”

The organized way in which threats are manifested through the internet requires an organizational response by the civil nuclear sector, which includes, by necessity, knowledgeable leadership at the highest levels, combined with dynamic contributions by management and staff and the entire stakeholder group, including members of the wider security and safety communities.

Images from Shutterstock.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Asteroid Miner

    October 6, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    You have greatly overestimated the consequence of getting a virus into reactor
    software.

    Reactors have too many ways to shut them down harmlessly.

    Operators have too many ways to force cooling to turn on.

    Even if you manage to cause a meltdown, you can’t harm any people. American containment buildings work. The containment building walls, ceiling and floor of American containment buildings are a minimum of 1 meter [about 39 inches] thick and HEAVILY reinforced with steel. There is so much steel reinforcing rod that when you look at one under construction, you wonder where there will be any room for concrete. The containment building also has a ½ inch thick steel liner. The San Onofre reactor in California has a containment building with 6 foot thick walls,
    ceiling and floor.

    Quit trying to drive people paranoid.

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Breaches

Uber Is Paying Hackers to Keep Quiet

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Uber Technologies Inc. has reportedly paid hackers to delete scores of private data stolen from the company in a security breach that was concealed for over a year. The revelation provides further confirmation that, when it comes to cyber security, crime does pay.

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Massive Data Breach

According to Bloomberg Technology, hackers retrieved the personal data of 57 million Uber customers and drivers at some point last year. Nobody heard about it because the rideshare company paid the hackers $100,000 to keep quiet. A purge at the front office of Uber also ensured that the massive cyber breach was kept under wraps.

The compromised data was from October 2016 and included the names, phone numbers and addressed of 50 million Uber riders globally. About seven million drivers had their personal information accessed as well.

At the time of the cyber attack, Uber was inundated with a slew of legal issues stemming from alleged privacy violations. Rather than shine even more negative spotlight on the company, Uber executives decided to pay hackers to stay quiet.

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“None of this should have happened, and I will not make excuses for it,” Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over as CEO in September, said in a statement that was published by Bloomberg. “We are changing the way we do business.”

Hackers have done a masterful job infiltrating companies and governments in recent years. As a reminder, recent cyber attacks levied against Yahoo!, Target Corp and Equifax Inc. dwarf Uber’s 57 million compromised accounts.

Various reports indicate that cyber attacks are bleeding the global economy dry. One report, issued by the World Economic Forum, suggests that cyber crime cost the world economy $445 billion in 2016. If cyber crime were its own market cap, it would exceed Microsoft Inc., Facebook Inc. and ExxonMobil Corp

The Fall of Uber?

Uber revolutionized the ride-hailing business over the span of seven years by giving more power to the consumer. Several missteps later, the company finds itself in legal hot water, with its future appearing less certain than it did just one year ago.

The rideshare company faces at least five U.S. probes ranging from bribes to illicit software and right up to unethical pricing schemes. According to another Bloomberg report, Uber is under investigation for violating price transparency regulations, not to mention the alleged theft of documents for Google’s autonomous cars.

Some governments are sensing weakness in the ride-hailing service, and are moving toward banning the Uber app entirely. London is the most prominent example of a city that has taken definitive steps to outlaw the service over a “lack of corporate responsibility.”

Even with its legal troubles, Uber is a revolutionary technology that has influenced a bevy of other innovations aimed at improving the human experience.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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Ethereum Notches Two-Month High as Bitcoin Offspring Triggers Volatility

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Digital currency Ethereum climbed to a two-month high on Monday, taking some of the heat off Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash, which have slumped since the weekend.

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Ethereum Forges Higher Path

Concerns over Bitcoin created a favourable tailwind for Ethereum (ETH/USD), which is the world’s No. 2 digital currency by total assets. Ether’s price topped $340.00 on Monday and later settled at $323.54. That was the highest since June 20.

At its peak, ether was up 10% on the day and 70% for the month of August.

The ETH/USD was last down 2.2% at $315.02, according to Bitfinex. Prices are due for a brisk recovery, based on the daily momentum indicators.

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Fractured Bitcoin Community

Bitcoin and its offshoot, Bitcoin Cash, retreated on Monday following a volatile weekend. The BTC/USD slumped at the start of the week and was down more than 3% on Tuesday, with prices falling below $3,900.00. Just last week, Bitcoin was trading at new records near $4,500.00.

Bitcoin Cash, which emerged after the Aug. 1 hard fork, climbed to new records on Saturday, but has been in free-fall ever since. The BTH was down another 20% on Tuesday to $594.49, according to CoinMarketCap. Its total market value has dropped by several billion over the past two days.

Analysts say that a “fractured” Bitcoin community has made Ethereum a more attractive bet this week. The ether token has shown remarkable poise over the past seven days, despite trading well shy of a new record.

Other drivers behind Ethereum’s advance are steady demand from South Korean investors and growing confidence in a smooth upgrade for the the ETH network. The upgrade, which has been dubbed “Metropolis,” is expected in the next several weeks. Its key benefits include tighter transaction privacy and greater efficiency.

Ethereum Prices Unaffected by ICO Heist

Fin-tech developer Enigma was on the receiving end of a cyber-heist on Monday after hackers took over the company’s website, mailing list and instant messaging platforms. The hack occurred three weeks before Enigma’s planned Initial Coin Offering (ICO) for September 11.

In addition to defacing the company’s website, the hackers pushed a special “pre-sale” ahead of the ICO. While many users realized it was a scam, 1,492 ether tokens – valued at $495,000 – were directed into the hackers’ cryptocurrency wallet by unsuspecting backers.

The irony in all this is that Engima is a cryptography company that prides itself on top-notch security protocols. The company issued a statement that its servers had not been compromised.

ETH/USD (Bitfinex)

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Ethereum Prices on Track for 35% Monthly Drop

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It has been a difficult month for ethereum. The world’s No. 2 digital currency has lost a third of its value over the past 30 days following a series of cyber breaches targeting vulnerable wallets and ICOs.

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Ethereum Struggles to Regain Momentum

Ethereum (ETH/USD) was trading near $197.00 Sunday at 6:30 BST, according to Bitfinex. That represents a decline of around 5%. At current values, ethereum’s market cap was $18.4 billion.

The ETH/USD exchange rate has struggled throughout July, with prices briefly falling below $160.00. The decline, which amounted to a 60-day low, lured bargain-hunters back into the market. After surging back toward $250.00, the ETH/USD has consolidated below the $220-mark, which continues to offer strong resistance. On the opposite side of the spectrum, major support is located at $180.00.

A price recovery may prove elusive in the short-term, with the Relative Strength Index (RSI) and Stochastic indicator signalling weak underlying momentum.

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Despite its recent decline, ethereum’s value has surged more than 2,200% this year.

Cyber Attacks, SEC Weigh on Market

The ethereum network suffered a large-scale cyber breach earlier this month resulting in the loss of tens of millions of dollars. A community of ethical hackers quickly banded together to “rescue” hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tokens.

Blockchain-based trading platform Coindash was also hijacked during an initial coin offering (ICO). The breach exposed Coindash’s ether wallet address, resulting in the loss of $7 million worth of ether.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has also taken an interest in the ethereum-based ICO market. Last week, the regulator concluded that a certain multi-million dollar token sale last year violated securities law. Although ICOs have been compared to crowd-sourcing, the SEC maintained that some tokens were in fact securities.

Analysts say the SEC ruling could impact the future of ICOs, although it remains unclear how the regulator is pursuing this market. The SEC’s July 25 press release cautions investors about ICOs in general.

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