Andrew Bardwell
Hackers could exploit the technology used in modern prisons to remotely open cell doors.
By
updated 8/1/2011 3:40:05 PM ET 2011-08-01T19:40:05

The high walls and barbed wire of a prison would seem to make security an open-and-shut case, but new research shows that hackers can exploit high-tech prison security systems to spring convicts from behind bars.

At this week's DefCon hacker conference in Las Vegas, security consultant John Strauchs will demonstrate how a hacker could take advantage of a prison's programmable logic controller (PLC) — small computers used for machine automation — to remotely control the locks on prison cells, Wired reported.

PLCs are the same technologies exploited by the infamous Stuxnet worm, which targeted power plants in Iran.

[Stuxnet Bug Targets Iranian Power Plant]

Strauchs has engineered or consulted on electronic security systems in more than 100 prisons, courthouses and police stations in the U.S. He bought a PLC and, with his daughter, Tiffany Strauchs Rad, and another researcher, examined it for any exploitable flaws.

"Within three hours we had written a program to exploit the [Siemens] PLC we were testing," said Rad, president of the technology firm ELCnetworks. "We acquired the product legally; we have a license for it. But it's easy to get it off [eBay] for $500. Anyone can do it if they have the desire."

Strauchs and his team presented their findings to the FBI and other federal agencies. Although they will not disclose the vulnerabilities they preyed on at the DefCon conference, Strauchs said the flaws they cracked could grant a hacker control of a prison.

Although it would take some work to infiltrate the prison's security system — a hacker would have to put malware on the network through an infected USB drive or a spear-phishing attack aimed at a prison employee — once that happened, the possibilities are terrifyingly endless.

"Once we take control of the PLC we can do anything," he said. "Not just open and close doors. We can absolutely destroy the system. We could blow out all the electronics."

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