RESEARCH | July 2, 2015

Hacking Wireless Ghosts Vulnerable For Years

Is the risk associated to a Remote Code Execution vulnerability in an industrial plant the same when it affects the human life? When calculating risk, certain variables and metrics are combined into equations that are rendered as static numbers, so that risk remediation efforts can be prioritized. But such calculations sometimes ignore the environmental metrics and rely exclusively on exploitability and impact. The practice of scoring vulnerabilities without auditing the potential for collateral damage could underestimate a cyber attack that affects human safety in an industrial plant and leads to catastrophic damage or loss. These deceiving scores are always attractive for attackers since lower-priority security issues are less likely to be resolved on time with a quality remediation.


In the last few years, the world has witnessed advanced cyber attacks against industrial components using complex and expensive malware engineering. Today the lack of entry points for hacking an isolated process inside an industrial plant mean that attacks require a combination of zero-day vulnerabilities and more money.


Two years ago, Carlos Mario Penagos (@binarymantis) and I (Lucas Apa) realized that the most valuable entry point for an attacker is in the air. Radio frequencies leak out of a plant’s perimeter through the high-power antennas that interconnect field devices. Communicating with the target devices from a distance is priceless because it allows an attack to be totally untraceable and frequently unstoppable.


In August 2013 at Black Hat Briefings, we reported multiple vulnerabilities in the industrial wireless products of three vendors and presented our findings. We censored vendor names from our paper to protect the customers who use these products, primarily nuclear, oil and gas, refining, petro-chemical, utility, and wastewater companies mostly based in North America, Latin America, India, and the Middle East (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE). These companies have trusted expensive but vulnerable wireless sensors to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds.


First, we decided to target wireless transmitters (sensors). These sensors gather the physical, real-world values used to monitor conditions, including liquid level, pressure, flow, and temperature. These values are precise enough to be trusted by all of the industrial hardware and machinery in the field. Crucial decisions are based on these numbers. We also targeted wireless gateways, which collect this information and communicate it to the backbone SCADA systems (RTU/EFM/PLC/HMI).

In June 2013, we reported eight different vulnerabilities to the ICS-CERT (Department of Homeland Security). Three months later, one of the vendors, ProSoft Technology released a patch to mitigate a single vulnerability.


After a patient year, IOActive Labs in 2014 released an advisory titled “OleumTech Wireless Sensor Network Vulnerabilities” describing four vulnerabilities that could lead to process compromise, public damage, and employee safety, potentially leading to the loss of life.

Figure 1: OleumTech Transmitters infield

The following OleumTech Products are affected:

  • All OleumTech Wireless Gateways: WIO DH2 and Base Unit (RFv1 Protocol)
  • All OleumTech Transmitters and Wireless Modules (RFv1 Protocol)
  • BreeZ v4.3.1.166

An untrusted user or group within a 40-mile range could inject false values on the wireless gateways in order to modify measurements used to make critical decisions. In the following video demonstration, an attacker makes a chemical react and explode by targeting a wireless transmitter that monitors the process temperature. This was possible because a proper failsafe mechanism had not been implemented and physical controls failed. Heavy machinery makes crucial decisions based on the false readings; this could give the attacker control over part of the process.

Figure 2: OleumTech DH2 used as the primary Wireless Gateway to collect wireless end node data.

Video:  Attack launched using a 40 USD RF transceiver and antenna


Industrial embedded systems’ vulnerabilities that can be exploited remotely without needing any internal access are inherently appealing for terrorists.


Mounting a destructive, real-world attack in these conditions is possible. These products are in commercial use in industrial plants all over the world. As if causing unexpected chemical reactions is not enough, exploiting a remote, wireless memory corruption vulnerability could shut down the sensor network of an entire facility for an undetermined period of time.


In May 2015, two years from the initial private vulnerability disclosure, OleumTech created an updated RF protocol version (RFv2) that seems to allow users to encrypt their wireless traffic with AES256. Firmware for all products was updated to support this new feature.


Still, are OleumTech customers aware of how the new AES Encryption key is generated? Which encryption key is the network using?


Figure 3: Picture from OleumTech BreeZ 5 – Default Values (AES Encryption)


Since every hardware device should be unmounted from the field location for a manual update, what is the cost?

IOActive Labs hasn’t tested these firmware updates. We hope that OleumTech’s technical team performed testing to ensure that the firmware is properly securing radio communications.


I am proud that IOActive has one of the largest professional teams of information security researchers who work with ICS-CERT (DHS) in the world. In addition to identifying critical vulnerabilities and threats for power system facilities, the IOActive team provides security testing directly for control system manufacturers and businesses that have industrial facilities – proactively detecting weaknesses and anticipating exploits in order to improve the safety and operational integrity of technologies.

Needless to say, the companies that rely on vulnerable devices could lose much more than millions of dollars if these vulnerabilities are exploited. These flaws have the potential for massive economic and sociological impact, as well as loss of human life. On the other hand, some attacks are undetectable so it is possible that some of these devices already have been exploited in the wild. We may never know. Fortunately, customers now have a stronger security model and I expect that they now are motivated enough to get involved and ask the vulnerable vendors these open questions.