Intruders used to creep in through ventilation ducts. Now they break in using the software that controls the ventilation.
Hundreds of organisations across Australia are using out-of-date industrial control systems (ICS) to control the lights, heating and cooling, access controls and even the elevators.
Using the Internet to manage buildings is convenient, but it may come at a steep price, presenting new opportunities for hackers.
"Companies have no idea this is even Internet accessible," said Billy Rios, technical and consulting director for Cylance, a security company in Reston, Virginia.
Rios and another Cylance technical director, Terry S. McCorkle Jr., revealed earlier this week that one of Google's offices in Sydney used Tridium's NiagaraAX platform with a security vulnerability that could have allowed them to crank up the heating.
More than 230,000 instances of the NiagaraAX platform, made by Honeywell subsidiary Tridium, based in Richmond, Virginia, are running worldwide.
The Java-based framework is used as the foundation for applications controlling automated security and power systems, lighting and telecommunications.
Cylance found Google's vulnerable system using Shodan, a search engine designed to find any device connected to the Internet, ranging from refrigerators to CCTV cameras to iPhones and wind turbines.
A search of Shodan shows Australia has the third-highest number of active Internet-facing NiagaraAX systems, just behind the United States and Canada, with 658 systems as of Thursday morning. More than 100 are located in Sydney.
In their research, McCorkle said typically three-quarters of the NiagaraAX systems run outdated software. Those newer versions often still have vulnerabilities. Cylance has found problems in NiagaraAX that at worst would allow them override software controls on hardware systems.
For example, even if a heating system is programmed to limit a room's temperature, Rios said one of the vulnerabilities they found in NiagaraAX would allow them to override it.
In Google's case, "Tridium had issued a security patch that would have prevented the intrusion -- but the patch had not been applied to the NiagaraAX system in use at the site," wrote Jenny Graves, Tridium's vice president for marketing communications, in an email.
The NiagaraAX platform is usually installed and maintained by other companies called system integrators.
"It seems like the integrators aren't patching these devices," Rios said. "The problem is the patch is not getting applied to the device on the Internet, and that is the integrator's responsibility."
Graves said Tridium continues "to work with our system integrators and customers to address the problem through seminars, forums and on-line training about security best practices."
With Google's system, it also appeared the integrator, a company called Controlworks, reused login and password credentials for the Web-based control panel. "It very much highlights the poor security practices being used by integrators all over the world," Rios said.
Controlworks, which specializes in building automation and energy management systems, updates customers' systems with patches during maintenance, said Sharyn Gregory, the company's chief financial officer. Some organizations, however, manage their own systems.
The company encourages its customers to use strong passwords, Gregory said. With Google, "we're certainly investigating what may have happened, and we are also reinforcing our current policies," she said.
Google's NiagaraAX system was connected via a digital subscriber line that the company may not have even been aware of, Rios said. Many ICSes installed by system integrators are not incorporated directly into a company's networks, which may allow them to escape regular security scans.
Hardware devices running NiagaraAX also may have two network ports -- one that is connected to the DSL line administered by the systems integrator, and the other port which is connected to the company's internal network, McCorkle said.
The meeting of those two connections is gold for a hacker.
"That is one of the classic ways these devices get connected to the corporate network," Rios said. Attackers find the ICS on the Internet, compromise it and then use it "as a lily pad to get on the corporate network," he said.
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