Technical Naiveté

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Article from Issue 213/2018
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I have used this space in the past to highlight a certain tendency in our culture to overstate the power, stability, and safety of our emerging technologies. For lack of a better term, I'll refer to this trait as technical naiveté.

Dear Reader,

I have used this space in the past to highlight a certain tendency in our culture to overstate the power, stability, and safety of our emerging technologies. For lack of a better term, I'll refer to this trait as technical naiveté. This tendency does not stem from a lack of technical knowledge – in fact, many of the people who suffer from this malady have lots and lots of technical knowledge – maybe even too much. The real problem is a lack of awareness about everything else. The hope is that, if you imagine a new technology in a sincere and earnest way, and you have the best of intentions for what you are going to do with it, the world will play along. One views the new technology as if it were in the pages of a science fiction book: A central feature that the story is then draped around, and the reality of the story is gently shaped to reflect the grandeur and importance of the technology.

People often write these stories in their heads when they behold new technologies that we invent here in our real world, but reality is a little messier than the elegant spaces of a science fiction novel. That's where we get the debacle of an autonomous mall robot that falls into a fountain and shorts out or a social media system that is supposed to bring us all together but actually incites weird mob behavior. Sometimes it is just a matter of time until we fix the problems and make the technology into what we thought it was in the first place. Other times, we just keep on living in the story that glorifies our technology and understates the danger, because, well, reality is often a little more difficult and considerably more expensive.

I thought I was a time traveler when I read the story at the Reg [1] about a presentation by some security researchers on the state of the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) infrastructure. The SCADA standard [2] is used for remote control systems in industrial environments such as factories and power plants. Worries about SCADA first emerged when the Stuxnet worm (allegedly created by US spy agencies) burrowed into Iran and caused 1,000 nuclear centrifuges to self-destruct [3]. "Whoa, those SCADA systems are really vulnerable," people said at the time. Did I mention that was eight years ago?

How is it going now for SCADA? Of course, SCADA systems are running all over the world, and some of those systems are well patrolled and maintained, but according to a report by Mike Godfrey and Matt Carr at the BSides conference in London, many SCADA systems are as unsafe as ever, with hopelessly ancient software, featuring hard-coded passwords and a conspicuous lack of encryption. Incredibly, some real-world SCADA systems are actually running on out-of-date Windows computers, including some that are still using Windows 98. Godfrey and Carr even presented a kind of universal SCADA break-in device: an Arduino microcontroller that you can bring to a SCADA facility and it will automatically begin identifying networks, logging in, and issuing STOP commands to start shutting down industrial systems.

Why are some SCADA systems still vulnerable eight years after Stuxnet? One reason is because it is so expensive and difficult to fix old embedded code. But something else is going on that is all about the simple pleasures of technical naiveté. It is all so empowering and cool to imagine that this whole factory can be managed from a single browser window without ever having to get dirty and change anything. Please let me stay in my Jimmy Neutron dream (or in my company's collective Jimmy Neutron dream) and remain in this futuristic vision of vast power at my fingertips, and just keep this rocket flying until…when?

Until the new year? Until the universe gets reborn? Until I get a new boss? Until my department gets some money? Until I retire? Until someone else comes a long and fixes this??

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

Infos

  1. "Pwned with 4 Lines of Code: Researchers Warn SCADA Systems are Still Hopelessly Insecure": https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/06/18/physically_hacking_scada_infosec/
  2. SCADA: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SCADA
  3. Stuxnet: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuxnet

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