Security holes in the computer systems of federal prisons in the United States can effectively allow hackers to trigger a jailbreak by remote control. The discovery of the Stuxnet worm has alerted governments around the world about the possibility of industrial control systems being targeted by hackers.
A team of researchers with John Strauchs, Tiffany Rad and Teague Newman presented their findings at a recent security conference. They said the project wasn't really all that difficult -- it just took a little time, some equipment bought online and a basement workspace. The idea for the research came about from work that Strauchs had done previously.
"I designed a maximum security prison security system. That is, I did the engineering quite a few years ago and literally on Christmas Eve, the warden of that prison after it was occupied, called me and told me all the doors had popped open, including on death row, which of course sent chills down my spine. So we fixed that problem very quickly. It was a minor technical thing that had to do with the equipment used, but the gist of it was it made me think if that could be done accidentally, what was the extent of what you could do if you did it deliberately?"
The security systems in most American prisons are run by special computer equipment called industrial control systems, or ICS. They are also used to control power plants, water treatment facilities and other critical national infrastructure. ICS has increasingly been targeted by hackers because an attack on one such system successfully sabotaged Iran's nuclear program in 2009.A malicious cyber-intruder could "destroy the doors," by overloading the electrical system that controls them, locking them permanently open, said Mr. Strauchs, now a consultant who has designed security systems for dozens of state and federal prisons.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has confirmed the validity of their results and the researchers have already demonstrated the attack to federal and state Bureaus of Prisons and a number of federal agencies.