A report from the NASA Office of Inspector General released a few days ago reveals the network within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab was compromised in a manner resembling that portrayed in an episode of the popular TV series, Mr. Robot.
In April 2018, JPL discovered an account belonging to an external user used to log into JPL’s
mission network had been compromised. Because of how JPL’s network is architected, the attackers were able to expand their access upon entry and move laterally across the network. The attack went undetected for nearly a year.
One reason the attack was successful, says the report, is that NASA system administrators often don’t regularly enter new devices into an information technology security database (ITSDB) because the database’s updating function sometimes doesn’t work. So items can be added to the network without being properly identified and vetted. The report says the April 2018 cyberattack exploited this particular weakness when the hacker accessed the JPL network by targeting a Raspberry Pi connected to the network that wasn’t authorized to be there.
The report seems to imply that the Raspberry Pi had been added innocently but ended up being a mechanism for intrusion. In that regard, it resembles the events of a 2015 episode of the popular TV series Mr. Robot (having the catchy title “eps1.4_3xpl0its.wmv”) wherein the main character destroyed magnetic tape data backups by raising the temperature of the storage room to point where the tapes were compromised. The means of raising the temperature was to connect an ordinary Raspberry Pi computer board into the climate control system. The Pi simply overrode climate commands from the building automation controller.
Once the Raspberry Pi had been added to the HVAC network, the Mr. Robot hackers accessed it remotely via a real-life website called Shodan (www.shodan.io), a search engine that lets users find not just HVAC systems but also routers, servers, and other equipment connected to the internet. The hack on TV worked because the building HVAC network was connected directly to the internet (a practice that security professionals warn against) and because the HVAC network had no means of authenticating devices connected to it. (Security professionals say this security defect is common among older industrial network standards.)
An additional common factor between the Mr. Robot hack and the NASA infiltration seems to be a lack of visibility for network connections. According to the NASA report, the attacker, using an external user account, exploited weaknesses in JPL’s system of security controls to move undetected within the JPL network for approximately 10 months. Prior to detection and containment of the incident, the attacker exfiltrated approximately 500 megabytes of data from 23 files, two of which contained International Traffic in Arms Regulations information related to the Mars Science Laboratory mission, the report said. More importantly, the attacker successfully accessed two of the three primary JPL networks. Accordingly, NASA questioned the integrity of deep space network data related to space flight systems and temporarily disconnected several space flight-related systems from the JPL network.
The NASA report also said the cyberattacker from the April 2018 incident exploited the JPL network’s lack of segmentation to move between various systems connected to a network gateway, including multiple JPL mission operations and the deep space network.
NASA says it has since installed additional safeguards on its firewalls and has implemented other security measures.