May 06, 2013, 8:59 PM — Hackers could have turned up the heat in one of Google's offices in Sydney. Literally.
Computer security researchers with Cylance found that Google's Australia branch was using an unpatched version of Niagara, a software system used for managing control systems in buildings.
Billy Rios, technical director and director of consulting for Cylance, wrote the finding is part of research the company is doing into industrial control systems, which involved scanning the Internet for vulnerable devices.
Google's building at Wharf 7 -- a scenic spot on Sydney's harbor -- used a "slightly outdated" version of the Niagara framework, which is developed by Tridium, a company owned by Honeywell. Cylance wrote a custom exploit to extract a configuration file from Niagara, which contained the user names and passwords for authorized users.
Although the passwords were encrypted, Cylance used custom tools to decrypt the passwords, opening up the software for takeover.
Cylance didn't do anything malicious and notified Google of the problems, and the company "quickly pulled offline" the system, Rios wrote. But the company's researchers did take a peek at the system, which allowed them to see a third-floor map of the office revealing its water and HVAC systems.
A Google spokeswoman said on Tuesday that "we're grateful when researchers report their findings to us. We took appropriate action to resolve this issue."
It would have been possible for the researchers to "root" the control system, or maintain persistent, complete access to it. Google said the access the researchers had would have only allowed them to manipulate the building's heating and cooling.
Industrial control systems, which are widely used in a variety of settings such as factories and utilities, have been found to contain dangerous vulnerabilities that would allow hackers to remotely control sensitive systems.
The U.S. government runs its own organization, the Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team, that is dedicated to studying security issues with the aim of securing critical national infrastructure.
Rios wrote on his blog last November that the Niagara industrial control system is one of the most widely used ones in the world. He found other vulnerabilities in the software, which he reported.
After an initial slow response, Rios wrote that Tridium and Honeywell eventually gave him special access to review their patches, which fixed a directory transversal issue, a weak session problem and an issue involving the insecure storage of users' credentials.