Critical infrastructure at risk again from Stuxnet-like attack

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A dozen vulnerabilities including previously undisclosed exploits have been discovered in software used to maintain industrial control systems (ICS) which could lead to another devastating attack on highly-prevalent critical infrastructure.

The researchers from Tenable likened the vulnerabilities to those in the family of devices affected by the infamous Stuxnet attack on an Iranian nuclear facility, adding that the software affected is used across nearly every business vertical.

The vulnerabilities affected four of the most popular ICS vendors: Siemens, Fuji Electric, Schneider Electric, and Rockwell Automation, all of which make some of the most widely used operational technologies in the world.

The researchers notified the vendors of the critical vulnerabilities and have now been patched, but they said remote malicious actors could exploit the software flaws, if left unpatched, to launch targeted attacks, perform administrative functions, unleash malicious code, harvest data or conduct espionage.

Users of the affected systems are urged to check the latest update has been applied, especially now the vulnerabilities have been disclosed.

"The attack scenario cannot be understated as critical systems such as power, water, transportation, and manufacturing all rely on major PLC vendors," said Joseph Bingham, reverse engineer at Tenable. "We will show a theoretical attack using recently discovered vulnerabilities and proof of concept code to disrupt a major power industrial system."

With Siemens' TIA Portal, which was patched this month, attackers could bypass HTTP authentication to gain admin privileges, enabling them to launch malicious firmware updates to modify user permissions or change proxy settings.

The Siemens vulnerability was the most dangerous of the 12 noted by the researchers, but vulnerabilities in the other systems involved remote command execution, memory corruption and stack overflows.

"A simple table with a bunch of exploits to critical vulnerabilities might not feel very impactful to many people... [but] Stuxnet only needed 3 new vulnerabilities to spread through an isolated network and damage centrifuges in the targeted Iranian nuclear facility, said Bingham. "Any of the vulnerabilities listed above could have been discovered by a threat actor and used as a key component in a targeted attack to disrupt or damage industrial hardware."

In a proof of concept exercise run by the researchers in a simulated nuclear reactor, they were able to show how just one exploited vulnerability could lead to major emergency detection systems in a plant being rendered useless, potentially causing a total nuclear meltdown.

"Attacks on critical infrastructure go well-beyond cyberspace -- they have the potential to cause physical damage and harm," said Renaud Deraison, chief technology officer and co-founder, Tenable. "And the threats to these often delicate systems cannot be overstated."

Connor Jones

Connor Jones has been at the forefront of global cyber security news coverage for the past few years, breaking developments on major stories such as LockBit’s ransomware attack on Royal Mail International, and many others. He has also made sporadic appearances on the ITPro Podcast discussing topics from home desk setups all the way to hacking systems using prosthetic limbs. He has a master’s degree in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield, and has previously written for the likes of Red Bull Esports and UNILAD tech during his career that started in 2015.