Industrial robotic systems are vulnerable to cyber-attacks, with 83,000 units exposed to the public-facing internet, of which thousands are not protected with authentication, according to research from IT security company Trend Micro.
Trend Micro teamed up with Italian technical university Politecnico di Milano (POLIMI) to examine the attack surface of existing industrial robots.
The researchers at the two organizations demonstrated how an industrial robot could be hacked in laboratory settings using an actual working industrial robot. They said that the robot was representative of a large class of industrial robots because of the architectural commonalities of most modern industrial robots and the existence of strict standards.
Trend Micro said that industrial robots were expected to perform with a high degree of safety, accuracy, and integrity, and that if there is a violation of any of these operational requirements, a cyber attacker could take control of the a robot.
“We found that the software running on industrial robots is outdated; based on vulnerable operating systems and libraries, sometimes relying on obsolete or cryptographic libraries; and have weak authentication systems with default, unchangeable credentials,” the security company said in a blog post.
“Additionally, [we] found tens of thousands industrial devices residing on public IP addresses, which could include exposed industrial robots, further increasing risks that an attacker can access and compromise them,” it added.
It determined five classes of attacks that are possible once an attacker is able to exploit any of the several weaknesses it found in industrial robot architectures and implementations.
The attacks include the ability to alter the control system or make changes to the calibration to make the robot move unexpectedly or inaccurately, at the attacker’s will, meaning defective or modified products are produced, or that the robot itself is at risk of being damaged. Attackers could also tamper with the program executed by the robot to introduce defects in the products being made, or manipulate the robot’s status so the operator loses control or even gets injured.
Overall, some 83,000 devices were found to be exposed to remote attackers, and 5100 had no authentication in place at all. The report also uncovered 63 vulnerabilities in these systems, giving attackers opportunities to infiltrate, steal and disrupt.
Trend Micro said that the vendors, with whom it is working closely, have taken its results very responsibly, showing a positive attitude toward securing the current and future generation of industrial robots.
According to Ian Hughes, Internet of Things analyst at IT advisory company 451 Research, the results don’t come as a surprise – he said that the number of vulnerabilities and potential security flaws are likely to grow as systems become more interconnected.
“A single production line can have 10,000 compute units making up multiple individual pieces of machinery, without automated security and patching they become vulnerable to both outside attack and insider malicious acts,” he said.
On the flip-side, connectivity can also provide a solution to many of these security challenges.
“Connectivity does give the chance to identify any components not patched to the highest level and provides opportunities to detect anomalous behavior automatically,” he added.