Some legacy industrial robotics programming platforms contain vulnerable open source code that hackers could exploit, according to new research.

Recent research has claimed that design flaws in legacy proprietary programming languages could lead to vulnerable automation programs. These flaws could enable attackers to hijack industrial robots and automation machines to disrupt production lines or steal intellectual property.

According to the research conducted jointly by Trend Micro Incorporated and the Polytechnic University of Milan (Politecnico di Milano), the industrial automation world may be unprepared to detect and prevent the exploitation of the issues found.

The legacy proprietary programming languages—such as RAPID, KRL, AS, PDL2, and PacScript—were apparently designed without an active attacker model in mind. Developed decades ago, they are now essential to critical automation tasks on the factory floor, but the flaws cannot be fixed easily.

As a result of this research, security-sensitive features were identified in the eight most popular industrial robotic programming platforms, and a total of 40 instances of vulnerable open source code have been found. One vendor has removed the automation program affected by a vulnerability from its application store for industrial software, and two more have been acknowledged by the maintainer, leading to fruitful discussion.

Not only are vulnerabilities a concern in the automation programs written using these proprietary languages, but researchers have demonstrated how a new kind of self-propagating malware could be created using one of the legacy programming languages.

The cybersecurity solutions firm has said it is imperative that the industry start embracing and establishing network-security best practices and secure-coding practices that have been updated with industry leaders as a result of this research.

Secure coding guidelines

To help Industry 4.0 developers greatly reduce the software attack surface and decrease potential business disruption in operational technology (OT) environments, new secure-coding guidelines have been established.

The new guidelines state that the task programs that rely on these languages and govern the automatic movements of industrial robots can be written in a more secure manner to mitigate Industry 4.0 risk. The essential checklist for writing secure task programs includes the following:

  • Treat industrial machines as computers and task programs as powerful code
  • Authenticate every communication
  • Implement access control policies
  • Always perform input validation
  • Always perform output sanitization
  • Implement proper error handling without exposing details
  • Put proper configuration and deployment procedures in places

Said Bill Malik, Vice President of Infrastructure Strategies, Trend Micro: “Once OT systems are network-connected, applying patches and updates is nearly impossible, which makes secure development upfront absolutely critical. Today, the software backbone of industrial automation depends on legacy technologies that too often contain latent vulnerabilities, like Urgent/11 and Ripple20, or varieties of Y2K-like architectural defects. We don’t want to simply point out these challenges, but once again take the lead in securing Industry 4.0 by offering concrete guidance for design, coding, verification, and on-going maintenance, along with tools to scan and block malicious and vulnerable code.”

Trend Micro Research has worked closely with The Robotic Operating System Industrial Consortium to establish recommendations to reduce the exploitability of the identified issues. Said Christoph Hellmann Santos, Program Manager, ROS-Industrial Consortium Europe: “Most industrial robots are designed for isolated production networks and use legacy programming languages. They can be vulnerable to attacks if connected to, for example, an organization’s IT-network.”

Guidelines have since been developed by ROS-Industrial and Trend Micro for correct and secure network setup for controlling industrial robots using ROS. In addition, Trend Micro Research and Politecnico di Milano have also developed a patent-pending tool to detect vulnerable or malicious code in task programs, thus averting possible cyber incidents.