How Easy Is It to Hack a Factory Robot?

The number of factory robots being used around the world is growing rapidly, and experts expect industrial robots to continue claiming more of a role in manufacturing. The International Federation of Robotics predicts that there will be 1.3 million robots in factories around the world by the end of next year. Connectivity is growing as well. The number of home and industrial devices connected through the cloud climbs everyday. We want everything from our shoes to our toasters to our fridges to our factory robots to communicate and improve our lives through automation.

Of course, increasing connectivity and automation increases the potential for cyber attacks. You hear about the threat and dangers of hacking, but just how easy is it to hack a factory robot?

Potential for cyber attacks in factories

The Industrial Internet of Things is the cornerstone of Industry 4.0 and Smart Manufacturing. Manufacturers need to capitalize on the mountains of data available to them. Automating the collection and application of this data is the most efficient way to improve manufacturing processes start to end. This means that machines, systems, and operators must be in constant communication. Systems, devices, and machines that are connected to the Internet are at a much higher risk for cyber attacks, however.

How easy is it to hack a factory robot?

WIRED recently published an article in which researchers from a cyber security firm demonstrated how easy it was to hack and manipulate an industrial robot arm. This firm also did an assessment of other robots and found that factory robot networks typically have weak security. The robots were easy to access, and the software often was not protected, or the software was outdated.

The problem here is that much of the exposed attack surface is comprised of legacy systems. A cell controller running Windows XP (or even NT or 2000) can outlast the computer it’s running on, as long as it is a mature system and no further major demands are made of it. We have clients still running DOS systems in plants, who are perfectly happy with them. As long as you understand the risks, and have a plan for upgrading (and BACKUPS), this is a perfectly acceptable operation state. Where things run off the rails is when these things get attached to the internet. When the IT department decides to run an Ethernet line to that XP cell controller that also goes to the outside world, you just attached a 16 year old operating system that hasn’t been updated to the Wild West. Think of throwing a side of beef into a piranha tank. Hackers see a system like this show up on their scans and they go get their kids to let them practice hacking into the computer equivalent of Alphabet Blocks.

The first question is “Why does this system need to be on the Internet?”. For most industrial systems, the answer is either “No reason”, “We need to use remote operation” or “We need data to/from the system”.

For the first answer, that is easy, DON’T HOOK IT TO THE INTERNET. About 75% of the systems we see should fall into this category. Getting updates is not a reason to hook the system to the internet, these can be brought to the computer on a flash drive. If the system isn’t hooked to the internet (what we call “airgapped” in the industry), it can’t be hacked (unless you bring the virus in on a flash drive, but that is a low order probability unless you have a Nation/State against you). Plus, why do you need to update the system if it is doing everything it’s supposed to already? One of the big problems we see is doing an update (Windows 2000 SP2 was a prime example) that crowbars the device drivers or hardware needed to run the system.

The second reason, “We need to use remote operation” can be solved simply by adding an Ethernet switch, with a lock on it. When you need to let someone in, you throw the switch, which “de-airgaps” the unit, or connects it to the internet. You only leave it connected for the duration of the remote access and then airgap the unit again when you are done. This requires some discipline, as you do have to remember to unhook the unit, but it is the best option to keep your system safe.

The third reason is where we see people get into the most trouble, and it is because the IT departments of many companies are shortsighted, lazy or just plain ignorant. This is a more recent phenomenon, in the past the IT professional for a company was typically someone with a CompSci degree, these days it can be (we kid you not) Joe the former forklift driver, who built a computer once. The “A” answer if you need to get data to/from your system, is to have an airgapped Intranet, an Ethernet system that is only connected to your interior systems and is NOT connected to the internet. Factories that are serious about systems will have parallel Intranets on the factory floor, one actually connected to the internet, and one connected only to cell and machine controls. The best system of this type that I have ever seen was at a makeup manufacturer. They had a Intranet that all of their controls and cell controls were attached to (which also had a Wi-Fi segment) and a Internet Ethernet system as well. The two were not connected, any control system engineer with a Wi-Fi password could get into the plant system and work on any control in the plant, without even a physical connection. The Wi-Fi system did not even extend to the edge of the plant, so it was impervious to outside hacking simply because it didn’t go outside. If you did need to get on the internet for something there were hard connection ports around the plant, but you again had to have passwords and such to get online. Woe be unto he who tried to connect them, the systems were set up to ring alarms in several parts of the plant if this happened and block the connection.

One of these three methodologies should be in use in your plant. Do you really want the HR department to have Admin level control access to your Cell Controller?

Should you worry?

While it appears as though it’s easy to hack factory robots, and everyone’s system is at constant risk, it’s important to consider the likelihood of your robots getting hacked. If they are constantly updated systems (That means Win7, 8, 8.1, or 10) and connected to the internet, and someone is actually updating them, they probability is fairly low, especially if nobody uses them for email or such (and why should they on mission critical systems?). If the systems are older than 7, or not updated, all it takes is one script kiddie to find you on the internet and you are about to star in the supporting role of “Bambi meets Godzilla“.

That being said, no one knows your risk of being targeted by a cyber attack better than yourself. If you’re concerned about hacks, hijacks, or cyber attacks, contact a cyber security firm. To keep your Indramat motion control system running like new, contact us.