SCADA Attacks, Holiday Shopping, Android Malware Lead Week's Security News

The past week's most prominent IT security news included more details on attacks against SCADA systems at water utilities, weak passwords and holiday shopping scams.

After public reports on Nov. 18 of a network breach at a Springfield, Ill., water utility were "downplayed" by the Department of Homeland Security, an unknown hacker posted screenshots from a South Houston, Texas, water utility to illustrate the ease in which someone can compromise the industrial control systems in these facilities.

The hacker, using the pseudonym Pr0f, claimed the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system at the water utility was protected by athree-character password.

The initial report from the Illinois State Terrorism and Intelligence Center that mentioned the attack on the Springfield breach and the subsequent damage to the water pump claimed the attack may have exploited vulnerabilities in the phpMyAdmin, a popular Web-based database administration tool. The tool has been criticized by several security experts as being ridden with too many bugs to justify running it on critical infrastructure.

DHS and the FBI continued to deny the veracity of the incident and stated on Wednesday that the report was "intended to be initial raw reporting and not conclusive in nature." The Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) said after studying the log files obtained from the state agency that it was unable to "validate" the claims. The investigation is still ongoing to discover why the pump failed, according to ICS-CERT. The SCADA vendor that may have been hacked was a "small, regional systems integrator," ICS-CERT said.

"The DHS statement released recently appears to conflict with the STIC report and its positive statements that an event had occurred. This begs the question why two government agencies disagree over whether a cyber event that damaged equipment had occurred at a water utility," wroteJoe Weiss, an industrial control system security expert who publicized the initial report.

Mobile security was also prominent, as a pair of reports from Juniper Networks and McAfee highlighted theexplosive growth rate of Android malware since July to November. Researchers' warnings about rapidly evolving Android malware incensed Chris DiBona, an open-source program manager at Google and a former Slashdot editor, who ranted on social networking site Google+ that security companies are "likely as not to be charlatans and scammers" intent on scaring consumers into buying mobile protection.

Paul Ducklin, head of technology of the Asia Pacific group at Sophos, pointed out that while there are safeguards built into Android, "bad things can and have happened on mobile devices, though the probability of you being affected is currently small, and your time exposed to danger might be short."

A list from SplashData on Nov. 21 highlighted the fact that despite frequent warnings about selecting strong and complex passwords, a majority of the Internet users are still relying on weak passwords to protect their accounts online.

The list compiled data that had been leaked by various attackers in targeting various targets in2011 and identified 25 most frequently used passwords, which included gems such as 12345, trustno1, 11111, qwerty, password and abc123.

Security experts warned that shoppers and retailers aren't the only ones focusing on Black Friday and the start of the traditional holiday shopping season; cyber-criminals are, too. While many retailers braced themselves forpotential distributed denial-of-service attacks that may occur over the next few weeks, shoppers were bombarded with reminders to update their Web browsers, security software and operating system with the latest versions to prevent malware from compromising their systems.

Experts warned aboutscams masquerading as legitimate deals and phony coupons as well as the dangers of shopping with mobile devices. Users were cautioned to be careful of what mobile apps they downloaded and were reminded to use the wireless carriers' 3G networks to shop online or compare prices instead of jumping on a public, and potentially unsafe, hotspot.