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Friday, 21 February 2020 08:35

Siemens patches protection relay flaw found by Claroty

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Siemens patches protection relay flaw found by Claroty Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

A vulnerability in the Siemens Digsi 4 protocol, which allowed a denial-of-service attack against the company's SIPROTEC 4 protection relays, was discovered recently by the Israeli security outfit Claroty and fixed in co-ordination with Siemens.

In a blog post providing details about the flaw, researcher Nadav Erez said Digsi 4 was the same protocol that was exploited by malware known as Industroyer in 2016; it is claimed to have been used to attack the power grid in Ukraine on 17 December 2016.

There is, however, no unanimity in this claim; as iTWire reported in 2017, researchers from Slovakian security firm ESET were cautious about concluding that Industroyer was really used in the Ukraine attack.

All that ESET committed to at the time was that their researchers had found malware — it was they who coined the name Industroyer — which could have done exactly what happened to the power grid in Ukraine. The capital, Kiev, was without power for an hour. A previous attack in 2015, also in December, knocked out the power in about 250,000 houses in various regions of Ukraine.

Erez said Industroyer "contained targeted industrial cyber security payloads that allowed it to communicate using ICS protocols and specifically attack the electrical substations of the targeted companies".

"Substations are critical in power generation, distribution, and transmission networks," he explained. "A very important component in a substation is the protection relay, which is responsible for monitoring the actual current transmitted in every location and may trip any circuit breaker if anything unexpected happens.

"Without this protection relay, anything from a power outage to physical damage and even safety issues could occur."

Some Industroyer payloads were aimed at causing a DoS on the protection relays and remote terminal units used by targeted power grid companies, and thus performing the function of a kill switch.

"One of the specifically targeted ICS payloads found in the Industroyer malware (CVE-2015-5374), that was implemented, caused a DoS on Siemens SIPROTEC 4 protection relays," Erez said. "This vulnerability used the SIPROTEC 4 programming protocol (Digsi 4) that communicates over UDP port 50000, and the proof-of-concept code implementing it is available publicly."

The flaw that Claroty discovered used a malicious packet in Digsi 4 to cause a DoS on those relays, giving an attacker the chance to inflict the same damage as that caused by Industroyer.

"This Digsi 4 protocol allows users to program the protection relay and change its behaviour," Erez pointed out.

There was an additional challenge for IT security products to protect against such attacks as the protocol, like many other ICS-related protocols, is a proprietary one, he added.

Siemens has issued an advisory, outlining workarounds and mitigations for this issue, and has beefed up security in the newer SIPROTEC 5 relays which have an encrypted communication protocol that uses improved security.

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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