(NaturalNews) A cyber-security specialist has discovered a flaw in the software that allows hackers to spy on and attack the communication of critical infrastructure operators of power plants, water systems, dams and more, and gain access to the credentials of computer systems which control those critical systems - claims the U.S. government is investigating.
Justin W. Clarke, an expert in securing industrial control systems, said a conference in Los Angeles earlier this month that he had discovered a way to spy on traffic moving into and out of networking equipment manufactured by RuggedCom, a division of Siemens.
Officials with the Department of Homeland Security said in an alert the agency released after it had learned of the potential security issue asked RuggedCom to confirm the gap Clark, 30, a security expert who has worked in the electric utility field for some time, had identified, then provide steps to mitigate the impact.
The firm, a Canadian subsidiary of Siemens which sells networking gear for use in harsh environments like areas with extreme weather, said it was looking into Clarke's allegations but did not elaborate, Reuters reported.
Clarke said his discovery is disturbing to the extent that hackers who are able to spy on communications of infrastructure operators could then also gain credentials allowing access to computer systems that control power and water plants, as well as electric grids and other critical infrastructure.
"If you can get to the inside, there is almost no authentication, there are almost no checks and balances to stop you," Clarke told Reuters.
Clarke, a high school grad who did not attend college, has now found two bugs in products manufactured by RuggedCom that are widely utilized by power companies which rely on its gear to support communications with remote power stations, said the Tribune.
Earlier this year, RuggedCom released an update to its Rugged Operating System software following a discovery by Clarke that it had a previously uncovered "back door" account that could provide hackers a way in to access the equipment with a password that was easily obtained.
"The Department of Homeland Security's Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team, which is known as ICS-CERT, said in its advisory on Tuesday that government analysts were working with RuggedCom and Clarke to figure out how to best mitigate any risks from the newly identified vulnerability," Reuters reported.
Clarke says the problem won't be easily fixed because all of the firm's Rugged Operating System software uses a single software "key" to decode traffic that's encrypted as it traverses networks. He added that he believes it's possible to extract that "key" from any piece of the software.
'It's a big deal'
Clarke told Reuters he bought RuggedCom's products through eBay. Afterward, he conducted the hacking research in his spare time with equipment he had spread out on a bed in his downtown San Francisco apartment.
Earlier this year, he was hired by Cylance, a firm specializing in the security of such vital infrastructure that was founded by former chief technology officer of Intel's McAfee security division, Stuart McClure.
Other cyber-security experts could use Clarke's discovery to wreak havoc on communications networks as part of a wider attack.
"It's a big deal," said Marcus Carey, a researcher with Rapid7, a Boston-based security firm. Carey worked previously to help defend military networks as a member of the U.S. Navy Cryptologic Security Group.
"Since communications between these devices is critical," he said, "you can totally incapacitate an organization that requires the network."
Uptick in cyber-attacks aimed at U.S. infrastructure
There have so far been no publicly reported cases of cyber-attacks that caused damage to critical U.S. infrastructure, but military and government officials, as well as some lawmakers, have expressed concerns about such attacks in recent months.
And in July, The New York Timesreported that there has been a dramatic rise in cyber-attacks targeting U.S. infrastructure.
Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who heads the National Security Agency and also the newly created United States Cyber Command, said there has been a 17-fold increase in attacks by criminal enterprises, hackers and foreign nations.