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SCADA systems `are vulnerable to terrorist attacks`

01 November, 2003

A US Congressman has warned of the dangers posed to America`s national security by widespread dependence on SCADA systems. Republican Congressman Adam Putman says that these systems "are undeniably vulnerable to cyber attack or terrorism".

Putman chairs the Congress Subcommitee for Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census, which is investigating the potential threats to US security posed by SCADA systems.

Speaking before a closed meeting of the committee in October, at which it heard evidence from SCADA experts, Putman pointed out that SCADA systems "underlie most of the infrastructure that makes everyday life possible in the United States". He cited, in particular, water supply and treatment plants, pipeline distribution systems, power stations, and food and medical manufacturing plants.

"The nation`s health, wealth and security rely on these systems," he said, "but, until recently, computer security for these systems has not been a major focus.

"The more I know, the more concerned I become," Putman added. It was apparent, he said, that "we have not developed a comprehensive strategy for addressing this weakness in our critical infrastructure."

Highlighting some of the weaknesses with existing SCADA systems, Putman pointed out that: "Data is often sent as clear text; protocols for accepting commands are open, with no authentication required; and communications channels are often wireless, leased lines of the Internet itself." Moreover, remote access into these systems is possible for vendors and for maintenance.

"Not only are they increasingly based on common operating systems with well-known vulnerabilities," he continued, "but information about their vulnerabilities has been posted widely on the World Wide Web."

There is also evidence that SCADA systems are becoming victims of Internet threats, such as viruses. Putman cited reports that the massive power cuts experienced in North America during the summer, "may have been partially due to the widespread Blaster worm, which apparently disrupted communications among data centres controlling the grid".

Putman reported that some US Government experts have concluded that terrorists already have plans to use the Internet as an "instrument of bloodshed", by attacking the junction of cyber systems and the systems they control. He also pointed to a recent report from the US National Research Council that concluded that "the potential for attack on control systems" needs urgent attention.

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