Cyber search engine Shodan exposes industrial control systems to new risks

He called his fledgling search engine Shodan, and in late 2009 he began asking friends to try it out. He had no inkling it was about to alter the balance of security in cyberspace.

“I just thought it was cool,” said Matherly, now 28.

Matherly and other Shodan users quickly realized they were revealing an astonishing fact: Uncounted numbers of industrial control computers, the systems that automate such things as water plants and power grids, were linked in, and in some cases they were wide open to exploitation by even moderately talented hackers.

Control computers were built to run behind the safety of brick walls. But such security is rapidly eroded by links to the Internet. Recently, an unknown hacker broke into a water plant south of Houston using a default password he found in a user manual. A Shodan user found and accessed the cyclotron at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Yet another user found thousands of unsecured Cisco routers, the computer systems that direct data on the networks.

“There’s no reason these systems should be exposed that way,” Matherly said. “It just seems ludicrous.”

The rise of Shodan illuminates the rapid convergence of the real world and cyberspace, and the degree to which machines that millions of people depend on every day are becoming vulnerable to intrusion and digital sabotage. It also shows that the online world is more interconnected and complex than anyone fully understands, leaving us more exposed than we previously imagined.

Over the past two years, Shodan has gathered data on nearly 100 million devices, recording their exact locations and the software systems that run them.

“Expose online devices,” the Web site says. “Webcams. Routers. Power Plants. iPhones. Wind Turbines. Refrigerators. VoIP Phones.”

Homeland security officials have warned that the obscurity that had protected many industrial control systems was fast dis­appearing in a flood of digital light.

“This means that these delicate [control computers] are potentially reachable from the Internet by malicious and skilled adversaries,” a Department of Homeland Security paper concluded in 2010.

The number of intrusions and attacks in the United States is rising fast. From October to April, the DHS received 120 incident reports, about the same as for all of 2011. But no one knows how often breaches have occurred or how serious they have been. Companies are under no obligation to report such intrusions to authorities.

A weak link in the system

Industrial control systems are the workhorses of the information age. Like other computers, they run on code and are programmable. Unlike laptops, smartphones and other consumer technology, they’re stripped down and have little style or glitz.

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