logo for print

A Web of Terror? Internet Could Be Al-Qaida Weapon

WASHINGTON - Late last fall, Detective Chris Hsiung of the Mountain View, Calif., Police Department began investigating a suspicious pattern of surveillance against Silicon Valley computers. From the Middle East and South Asia, unknown browsers were exploring the digital systems used to manage Bay Area utilities and government offices.
Hsiung, a specialist in high-technology crime, alerted the FBI's San Francisco computer-intrusion squad.

Working with experts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the FBI traced trails of a broader reconnaissance. A forensic summary of the investigation, prepared in the Defense Department, said the bureau found "multiple casings of sites" nationwide.

Routed through telecommunications switches in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan, the visitors studied emergency telephone systems, electrical generation and transmission, water storage and distribution, nuclear-power plants and gas facilities.

Digital Devices Targeted

Some of the probes suggested planning for a conventional attack, U.S. officials said. But others homed in on a class of digital devices that allow remote control of services such as fire dispatch and of machinery such as pipelines. More information about those devices - and how to program them - turned up on al-Qaida computers seized this year, according to law-enforcement and national-security officials.

Unsettling signs of al-Qaida's aims and skills in cyberspace have led some government experts to conclude that terrorists are at the threshold of using the Internet as a direct instrument of bloodshed. The new threat bears little resemblance to familiar financial disruptions by hackers responsible for viruses and worms. It comes instead at the meeting points of computers and the physical structures they control.

U.S. analysts believe that by disabling or taking command of the floodgates in a dam, for example, or of substations handling 300,000 volts of electric power, an intruder could use virtual tools to destroy real-world lives and property.

"The event I fear most is a physical attack in conjunction with a successful cyberattack on the responders' 911 system or on the power grid," Ronald Dick, director of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, told a closed gathering of corporate security executives in Niagara Falls on June 12.

In an interview, Dick said those additions to a conventional al-Qaida attack might mean that "the first responders couldn't get there ... and water didn't flow, hospitals didn't have power. Is that an unreasonable scenario? Not in this world. And that keeps me awake at night."

Regarded until recently as remote, the risks of cyberterrorism now command urgent White House attention. Discovery of one acute vulnerability - in a data transmission standard known as ASN.1, short for Abstract Syntax Notification - rushed government experts to the Oval Office on Feb. 7 to brief President Bush. The security flaw, according to a subsequent written assessment by the FBI, could have been exploited to bring down telephone networks and halt "all control information exchanged between ground and aircraft flight-control systems."

Officials said Osama bin Laden's operatives have nothing like the proficiency in information technology of the most sophisticated nation-states. But al-Qaida is now judged to be considerably more capable than analysts believed a year ago. In Islamic chat rooms, computers linked to al-Qaida had access to "cracking" tools used to search out networked computers, scan for security flaws and exploit them to gain entry - or full command, sources said.

Most significantly, perhaps, U.S. investigators have found evidence that al-Qaida operators spent time on sites that offer software and programming instructions for the digital switches that run power, water, transport and communications grids.

Such specialized digital devices are called distributed-control systems, or DCS, and supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, systems. The simplest ones collect measurements, throw railway switches, close circuit-breakers or adjust valves in the pipes that carry water, oil and gas. More complicated versions sift incoming data, govern multiple devices and cover a broader area.

What is new and dangerous is that most of these devices are now being connected to the Internet - some of them in ways that their owners do not suspect, according to classified reports by "Red Team" mock intruders from the Energy Department's four laboratories who test security systems.

Because the digital controls were not designed with public access in mind, they typically lack even rudimentary security. Much of the technical information required to penetrate the systems is widely discussed in the public forums of the affected industries, and specialists said the security flaws are well-known to potential attackers.

The various agencies of the U.S. intelligence community have not reached consensus on the scale or imminence of this threat, according to participants in and close observers of the discussion. The Defense Department is most skeptical of al-Qaida's interest and prowess in cyberspace.

"DCS and SCADA systems might be accessible to bits and bytes," Assistant Secretary of Defense John Stenbit said in an interview. But al-Qaida prefers simple, reliable plans and would not allow the success of a large-scale attack "to be dependent on some sophisticated, tricky cyber thing to work."

But White House and FBI analysts, as well as officials in the Energy and Commerce departments with more direct responsibility for the civilian infrastructure, describe the threat in more robust terms.

"We were underestimating the amount of attention (al-Qaida was) paying to the Internet," said Roger Cressey, a longtime counterterrorism official. "Al-Qaida spent more time mapping our vulnerabilities in cyberspace than we previously thought. An attack is a question of when, not if."

Counterterrorism analysts have known for years that al-Qaida prepares for attacks with elaborate "targeting packages" of photographs and notes. But, in January, U.S. forces in Kabul, Afghanistan, found something new.

A computer seized at an al-Qaida office contained models of a dam, made with structural architecture and engineering software, that enabled the planners to simulate its catastrophic failure. Bush administration officials, who discussed the find, declined to say whether they had identified a specific dam as a target.

The FBI reported the computer had been running Microstran, an advanced tool for analyzing steel and concrete structures; Autocad 2000, which manipulates technical drawings in two or three dimensions; and software "used to identify and classify soils," which would assist in predicting the course of a wall of water surging downstream.

12-Year-Old Succeeded

To destroy a dam physically would require "tons of explosives," Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff said a year ago. To breach it from cyberspace is not out of the question. In 1998, a 12-year-old hacker, exploring on a lark, broke into the computer system that runs Arizona's Roosevelt Dam. He did not know or care, but federal authorities said he had complete command of the SCADA system controlling the dam's massive floodgates.

Roosevelt Dam holds back as much as 1.5 million acre-feet of water, or 489 trillion gallons. That volume could theoretically cover the city of Phoenix, down river, to a height of 5 feet. But in practice, that could not happen. Before the water reached the Arizona capital, the rampant Salt River would spend most of itself in a flood plain encompassing the neighboring cities of Mesa and Tempe - with a combined population of nearly a million.

In Queensland, Australia, on April 23, 2000, police stopped a car on the road to Deception Bay and found a stolen computer and radio transmitter inside. Using commercially available technology, Vitek Boden, 48, had turned his vehicle into a pirate command center for sewage treatment along Australia's Sunshine Coast.

Boden's arrest solved a mystery that had troubled the Maroochy Shire wastewater system for two months. Somehow the system was leaking hundreds of thousands of gallons of putrid sludge into parks, rivers and the manicured grounds of a Hyatt Regency hotel.

Specialists in cyberterrorism have studied Boden's case ecause it is the only one known in which someone used a digital-control system deliberately to wreak harm.

Boden had quit his job at Hunter Watertech, the supplier of Maroochy Shire's remote-control and telemetry equipment. Evidence at his trial suggested he was angling for a consulting contract to solve the problems he had caused.

To sabotage the system, he set the software on his laptop to identify itself as "pumping station 4," then suppressed all alarms. Paul Chisholm, Hunter Watertech's chief executive, said in an interview that Boden "was the central control system" during his intrusions, with unlimited command of 300 SCADA nodes governing sewage and drinking water alike.

Like thousands of utilities around the world, Maroochy Shire allowed technicians operating remotely to manipulate its digital controls. Boden learned how to use those controls as an insider, but the software he used conforms to international standards, and the manuals are available on the Web. He faced virtually no obstacles to breaking in.

Nearly identical systems run oil and gas utilities and many manufacturing plants. But their most dangerous use is in the generation, transmission and distribution of electrical power, because electricity has no substitute and every other key infrastructure depends on it.

Effect Unknown

Massoud Amin, a mathematician directing new security efforts in the industry, described the North American power grid as "the most complex machine ever built." At an April 2 conference hosted by the Commerce Department, participants said, government and industry scientists agreed they have no idea how the grid would respond to a cyberattack.

What they do know is that "Red Teams" of mock intruders from the Energy Department's four national laboratories have devised what one government document listed as "eight scenarios for SCADA attack on an electrical-power grid" - and all of them work. Eighteen such exercises have been conducted to date against large regional utilities, and Richard Clarke, Bush's cybersecurity adviser, said the intruders "have always, always succeeded."

Joseph Weiss of KEMA Consulting, a leading expert in control-system security, reported at two recent industry conferences that intruders were "able to assemble a detailed map" of each system and "intercepted and changed" SCADA commands without detection.

"What the labs do is look at simple, easy things I can do to get in" with tools commonly available on the Internet, Weiss said in an interview. "In most of these cases, they are not using anything that a hacker couldn't have access to."

Bush has launched a top-priority research program at the Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos labs to improve safeguards in the estimated three million SCADA systems in use. But many of the systems rely on instantaneous responses and cannot tolerate authentication delays. And the devices deployed now lack the memory and bandwidth to use techniques such as "integrity checks" that are standard elsewhere.

In a book-length Electricity Infrastructure Security Assessment, the industry concluded on Jan. 7 that "it may not be possible to provide sufficient security when using the Internet for power-system control." Power companies, it said, will probably have to build a parallel private network for themselves.

The U.S. government may never have fought a war with so little power in the battlefield. That became clear again on Feb. 7, when Clarke and his vice chairman at the critical infrastructure board, Howard Schmidt, arrived in the Oval Office.

They told the president that researchers in Finland had identified a serious security hole in the Internet's standard language for routing data through switches. A government-threat team found implications - for air traffic control and civilian- and military-phone links, among others - that were more serious still.

"We've got troops on the ground in Afghanistan and we've got communication systems that we all depend on that, at that time, were vulnerable," Schmidt recalled.

Bush ordered the Pentagon and key federal agencies to patch their systems. But most of the vulnerable networks were not government-owned. Since Feb. 12, "those who have the fix in their power are in the private sector," Schmidt said.

A Tough Sell

New public-private partnerships are helping, but the government case remains a tough sell. Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute in Bethesda, Md., said "substantially none" of the banks and brokerages, considered the most security-conscious businesses, tell government when their systems are attacked.

Sources said the government did not learn crucial details about last fall's Nimda worm, which caused about $530 million in damage, until stricken firms began firing their security executives.

Experts said public companies worry about loss of customer confidence and legal liability to shareholders or security vendors when they report flaws.

The FBI is having even less success with its "key asset initiative," an attempt to identify the most dangerous points of vulnerability in 5,700 companies deemed essential to national security.

Michehl Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council, said last month it will not happen: "We're not going to build such a list. ... We have no confidence that the government can keep that a secret."

For fear of terrorist infiltration, Clarke's critical infrastructure board and Tom Ridge's homeland-security office are now exploring whether private companies would consider telling the government the names of employees with access to sensitive sites.

There is no precedent for that. The FBI screens bank employees but has no statutory authority in other industries. Using classified intelligence databases of suspected terrorists would mean the results could not be shared with the employers. Bobby Gillham, manager of global security at oil giant Conoco, said he doubts his industry would go along.

"You have Privacy Act concerns," he said. "And just to get feedback that there's nothing here, or there's something here but we can't share it with you, doesn't do us a lot of good."

Exasperated by companies seeking proof that they are targets, Clarke has stopped talking about threats at all.

"It doesn't matter whether it's al-Qaida or a nation-state or the teenage kid up the street," Clarke said. "Who does the damage to you is far less important than the fact that damage can be done. You've got to focus on your vulnerability ... and not wait for the FBI to tell you that al-Qaida has you in its sights."

Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers is included in this report.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Terrorism Prevention and Response

Sponsored by

Copyright © 2018 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.