Secure Communications in Harsh Environments, Part 1

For a long time, hackers only targeted the IT systems of offices or individuals. This, however, has changed as the bad guys more frequently go after unconventional targets, like industrial and oil plants, refineries of all kinds, power grids or water utilities. Last November, for example, hackers used a remote access connection to successfully attack a water utility in Illinois, destroying a pump. In fact, according to the Department of Homeland Security, the number of similar attacks on public and private SCADA infrastructure (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) will continue to rise.

The Stuxnet worm is among the most salient examples of this. Towards the end of 2010, hackers were able to attack Siemens’ programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that were used in Iran's atomic research facilities, bringing the research facilities to a partial halt. Common and frequently attacked weak points are peripheral systems in harsh environments, such as sensors, PLCs, as well as measuring, controlling and regulating devices. This is due to the fact that most of these systems have one thing in common: they communicate with other systems or control units, and for that, they frequently use standard protocols, like Ethernet (Industrial Ethernet).

Since the 1990s, most of these devices also have an additional Internet interface. Such interfaces are especially important for sensors, remote terminal units (RTUs), IP surveillance cameras and controls that are mounted in inaccessible locations such as, an oil production facility, a water pump, or a transformer station. Through the Internet interface, these systems transfer position, data and status messages to a central office. Apart from that, service technicians are able to remotely access, monitor and configure these devices via WAN connections or the radio network.