The Rickety World of Industrial Control Systems

Industrial Control Systems (ICS) run everything from waste water to nuclear power.  Unfortunately, they are on pretty shaky ground.

During the cold war, Ronald Reagan’s CIA convinced the Russians to use American control software to manage a gas pipeline in Siberia.  Unfortunately for the Russians, the CIA placed a few time bombs in the software and after it was in use for a while, the software caused the pipeline to over pressure itself and blow up.  The explosion was so big that you could see it from space (see article).

The objective was to mess with the Russian economy and it worked.

Any wonder why the Chinese do not want to use Western technology, especially in their critical systems?

Well, things have not changed much in the last 30 years.  OLE for Process Control or OPC controls a lot of power, water and other plants.  Guess what – it only runs on Windows XP, the operating system that Microsoft stopped supporting last year.  That does not mean that all the bugs are out of it – just that the new ones don’t get patched.

Part of the problem with the ICS world is that when it first started everything was connected to the controller with purpose laid direct wires.  Then the Internet and wireless was invented and people figured out that they could save money not running all those wires.  Of course the controllers didn’t change – they didn’t add encryption, authentication or logging.  There are some band-aids, but they are just that.

We were able to blow up Iran’s centrifuges.  Maybe we are the good guys, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that the bad guys are trying to attack our infrastructure.  They are.  And don’t fool yourself into thinking that we are so much smarter than them that they can’t do to us what we did to them.  The Department of Energy’s Idaho National Lab demonstrated years ago that they were able to cause a one megawatt generator to execute that famous computer instruction – halt and catch fire.  Literally.  You can watch it on You Tube.

So why don’t fix it?  Do you have a few billion dollars to spare?  It would require redesigning most of our existing infrastructure to do that.  Actually, maybe a few tens of billions.

And, we would need to take that infrastructure offline while we do that because, let’s say, there is a valve that controls the flow of gas or water or sewage.  Either that valve is on the new system or the old system, typically not both.  You probably could leave both valves in there, but that makes it even more complicated.   Times millions of valves, gauges and other sensors.  As they say, it’s complicated.

And, we haven’t had a power plant blow up lately.  Least not that we know of.

So since the world does not APPEAR to be broken, we tend to leave well enough alone.  Until it is a crisis.  Here is another article on the subject.

We are likely going to live with this very fragile ecosystem until all the existing infrastructure gets replaced.  Like in a hundred years.

That is not a comforting thought.

Wait, maybe this is more comforting.  It could get fixed sooner if we have an incident like the Russian gas pipeline explosion described at the beginning of the article.  No.  That’s not more comforting. Forget I suggested that.


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