September 27, 2016

Kaspersky Lab developing secure OS for industrial control systems

(LiveHacking.Com) – In a blog post for Kaspersky Lab, Eugene Kaspersky has confirmed that the security company is working on a new, secure operating system on top of which  industrial control systems (ICS) can be installed. The aim is to provide a secure environment that incorporate all the latest security technologies available and is built to tackle the realities of 21st century cyber-attacks.

The motivation behind such an ambitious project is the inevitable future of mass cyber-attacks on nuclear power stations, energy supply and transportation control facilities, financial and telecommunications systems. Until a few years ago cyber attacks were limited to web servers and emails server, however that has changed and now the very infrastructure that controls our countries is open for attack.

Industrial IT systems are different to office system and internet facing server for three very important reasons:

  1. The system must always be running. If a web server is under attack, worst case scenario is that the server is shutdown until everything can be resolved. You can’t do that with the control system running a nuclear power station!
  2. Because of the “always on” nature of the systems, performing software upgrades are difficult and often undesired by those running the systems.
  3. Traditionally the ICS manufacturers have been less willing to provide updates to existing control system.

The result is that when an exploit is found in the control system, fixing it can be very hard.

The fact that the majority of control systems aren’t connected to the Internet could lull us into a false sense of security as how could a hacker possibility get to the system if it isn’t connected to anything. Unfortunately the reality is quite different. Kaspersky gives the following example from twelve years ago:

An employee of a third-party contractor who was working on the control systems of Maroochy Shire Council (in  Australia) carried out 46 (!) attacks on its control system, which caused the pumps to stop working or work not as they should have. No one could understand what was happening, since the communication channels inside the system had been breached and the information traveling along them distorted. Only after months did companies and the authorities manage to work out what had happened. It turned out that the worker really wanted to get a job at the sewage firm, was rejected, and so decided to flood a huge area of Queensland with sewage!

And this long before the rise of cyber espionage malware like Stuxnet, Duqu, Flame, miniflame and Gauss.

“Ideally, all ICS software would need to be rewritten, incorporating all the security technologies available and taking into account the new realities of cyber-attacks,” wrote Kaspersky.

However, such a huge project effort would still not guarantee sufficiently stable operation of systems. The alternative is to create a a secure operating system, one onto which ICS can be installed. To do this Kaspersky Lab are developing a highly tailored operating system for a specific narrow task. It is not, as Kaspersky put it “for playing Half-Life on, editing your vacation videos, or blathering on social media.”

Also the company is working on methods of writing software which, by design, won’t be able to carry out any behind-the-scenes, undeclared activity.

“It’s a sophisticated project, and almost impracticable without active interaction with ICS operators and vendors. We can’t reveal many details of the project now because of the confidentiality of such cooperation. And we don’t want to talk about some stuff so competitors won’t jump on our ideas and nick the know-how. And then there are some details that will remain for certain customers’ eyes only forever, to ward off cyber-terrorist abuses,” added Kaspersky.

More details about the system, its requirements and background to its development can be read here.