Early in 2009, while working the night shift as a contract security guard, Jesse William McGraw infiltrated more than 14 computers at the North Central Medical Plaza in Dallas, Texas. McGraw, who is the self-proclaimed leader of the hacking group Electronik Tribulation Army, installed a program on the computers that would allow him to remotely access them to launch DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks on rival hacking organizations’ websites.
Among the computers McGraw hacked into were a nurses’ station computer—which had access to patient information protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)—and a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning computer that controlled the airflow to floors used by the hospital’s surgery center. Over several months in 2009, McGraw further compromised the hospital’s network by installing malicious code and removing security features, making the network even more vulnerable to cyberattacks.
To document his work, McGraw made a video and audio recording of his “botnet infiltration.” Set to the theme of Mission Impossible, McGraw described his actions: accessing an office and a computer without authorization, inserting a CD containing the 0phcrack program into the computer to bypass security, and inserting a removable storage device, which he claimed contained a malicious code or program. McGraw then posted the video to the Internet, asking other hackers to aid him in conducting a “massive DDoS” on July 4, 2009.
His online actions attracted the attention of the FBI, which, five days before his planned attack, arrested him on two charges of transmitting malicious code. McGraw pled guilty to the charges and was sentenced to 110 months in federal prison in 2011.
An attack similar to McGraw’s is even more worrisome now as companies are increasingly using building systems and access control systems that are connected to computers. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of cyber incidents reported to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that involved industrial control systems grew from 140 to 243 incidents—an increase of 74 percent.
Yet many private and public entities aren’t addressing the cyber risks associated with these systems. In fact, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, DHS is not assessing or addressing cyber risks to building and access control systems at the nearly 9,000 federal facilities protected by the Federal Protective Service (FPS) at all.
“DHS has not developed a strategy, in part, because cyber threats involving these systems are an emerging issue,” the GAO found in its recent report. “By not developing a strategy document for assessing cyber risk to facility and security systems, DHS and, in particular, [the National Protection and Programs Directorate] have not effectively articulated a vision for organizing and prioritizing efforts to address the cyber risk facing federal facilities that DHS is responsible for protecting.”
Within most federal facilities there are building control systems that monitor and control building operations such as elevators, electrical power, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. Many of these systems are connected to each other and to the Internet, making them extremely vulnerable to cyberattacks that could compromise security measures, hamper agencies’ ability to carry out their missions, or cause physical harm to the facilities or occupants, the GAO reports. For instance, a cyberattack could allow people to gain unauthorized access to facilities, damage temperature-sensitive equipment, and provide access to information systems.
And perpetrators aren’t just limited to outside actors; they can also come from insider threats. “Insider threats—which can include disgruntled employees, contractors, or other persons abusing their positions of trust—also represent a significant threat to building and access control systems, given their access to and knowledge of these systems,” the report explains.
Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, DHS is required to protect federal facilities as well as people inside those facilities. As part of that responsibility, DHS’s National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) is in charge of strengthening the security and resilience of U.S. physical and cyber-critical infrastructure against terrorist attacks, cyber events, natural disaster, or other catastrophic incidents.
Yet as a department, DHS lacks a strategy that defines the problem and identifies the roles and responsibilities for cyber risk to building and access control systems, according to the GAO. Also, the report notes that DHS has failed to analyze the necessary resources or identify a methodology for assessing such risk.
Additionally, the Interagency Security Committee (ISC), the body responsible for developing physical security standards for nonmilitary federal facilities, has not incorporated cyberthreats to building and access control systems into its Design-Basis Threat report. The report aims to set standards based on leading security practices for all nonmilitary federal facilities to “ensure that agencies have effective physical security programs in place.”
However, cybersecurity has not been added to the report because “recent active shooter and workplace violence incidents have caused ISC to focus its efforts on policies in those areas first,” according to the GAO report. But the office has reported that “incorporating the cyber threat to building and access control systems in ISC’s Design-Basis Threat report will inform agencies about this threat so they can begin to assess its risk.”
Furthermore, the General Services Administration (GSA) has not “fully assessed” the risk of a cyberattack on building control systems consistent with the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA) or its implementation guidelines. According to the GAO’s report, GSA has assessed security controls of building control systems, but has not fully assessed the elements of risk, such as threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences.
“For example, five of the 20 reports [GAO] reviewed showed that GSA assessed the building control device to determine if a user’s identity and password were required for login, but did not assess the system to determine if password complexity rules were enforced,” the GAO reports. “This could potentially lead to weak or insecure passwords being used to secure building control systems.”
Coleman Wolf, CPP, security lead for global engineering consulting firm ESD, said he was not surprised by the office’s overall findings. “The part that does surprise me is that some of the assessment that is supposed to go on is not going on, or the plans are not in place to conduct those assessments,” says Wolf, who is also the chair of the ASIS International IT Security Council. “I would expect that on the private sector side, but I just thought there were more stringent plans in place on the federal side.”
However, Wolf says he doesn’t think there will be a big drive for changes in assessing cyber risk of building systems until it begins to impact people at a personal level in their own homes. “As people start to see these kinds of potential consequences, I think people will start to demand more be done to assess and rectify these kinds of threats,” he predicts.
While the private sector begins to focus on building control systems, the public sector is complying with GAO’s recommendation that the appropriate government agencies should take steps to assess cyber risks.
“We [at DHS] are working to develop a strategy for addressing cyber risk to building and access control systems,” says S.Y. Lee, a DHS spokesman. “This strategy will utilize best practices and lessons learned from the private sector experiences of the DHS National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center’s Industrial Control systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (CERT).”
The ISC is also working with DHS’s US-CERT and ISC-CERT to incorporate potential cyber risks to buildings and access control systems into the Design-Basis Threat Report and Countermeasures Appendix. As the next step of the process, ISC will meet with GSA and other agencies to plan a comprehensive review of cyber risks to building access control systems.
It will then issue additional guidance to its federal partners on appropriate countermeasures in the next annual review of its Design-Basis Threat Report, which is scheduled for release in October 2015, according to a DHS official.
GSA also agreed with the findings of the report and said it will take “appropriate action” to make sure its assessments of cyber risks to building control systems are compliant with FISMA and implementing guidelines, according to a letter included in the report by Dan Tangherlini, a GSA administrator.
However, GSA did not respond to requests for comment before press time on what specific actions it planned to take to address cyber risks.