Papers by Jonathan Pevarnek

Green Lights Forever: Analyzing the Security of Traffic Infrastructure

Consider the humble traffic light. The basic design dates to the 1890s, the signals it displays can be explained to a toddler, they’re everywhere and no one thinks anything of them, but if they malfunction an entire city could be paralyzed. Also, for longer than you might realize, they have not been controlled by simple, independent timing circuits; coordinated light patterns, intended to ensure that traffic flows smoothly along the entire length of a boulevard, date to the 1940s. Nowadays each light’s control box tends to have a computer inside, and they talk to each other on radio links, because running wires between all the intersections is expensive.

Today’s paper is from WOOT 2014 and is a case study of the security of such networks of traffic lights. If you have any experience with embedded device security you can probably guess how it turned out: The radio links are in the clear. The protocols are proprietary, but easy to reverse-engineer (or acquire software for). The computers run an outdated proprietary embedded OS and there’s no mechanism for ensuring it gets patched when necessary. Operating-system-level debugging interfaces with complete control over the device may have been left active and exposed to the network. Management software fails to work correctly if passwords are changed from the vendor’s default. And once you’re connected, you can completely reconfigure the traffic lights—which is by design, so adjustments don’t require sending a maintenance crew to every intersection.

The saving grace is the malfunction management unit. This is a separate circuit board, built with discrete logic and configured with physical jumpers, which prevents the light at any single intersection from displaying an unsafe combination of signals (e.g. green in all directions). If the computer tries to put the lights in a state that isn’t on the MMU’s whitelist, or change them too rapidly, it will be overridden and the lights will enter a failsafe mode (such as blinking red in all directions) until someone physically resets the control box. This safety mechanism limits the damage an attacker can do, but it’s still perfectly possible to bring all traffic to a halt, malcoordinate the lights to hinder rather than help traffic flow (which might go completely unnoticed) or just give yourself green lights all the time at everyone else’s expense.

This paper is probably more valuable for its broader lessons (section 6) than for this one case study. Why is it that security experts are not surprised when yet another embedded, safety-critical system turns out to be wide open to remote explotation? The authors call this phenomenon the security phase change. You have an industry with decades of experience designing, manufacturing, and selling widgets which do not communicate with the outside world. The engineers have a solid understanding of how the widget might fail due to accidents, wear and tear, manufacturing defects, etc, and what needs to be done to make sure it fails safe—that malfunction management unit is not in the traffic light controller by chance. But no one thinks about failures due to malice, because why would anyone go around to each and every traffic light and monkeywrench it? It would take hours. Someone would probably call the police.

To such a widget, features are incrementally added, each desirable in its own terms. Microcontrollers are cheaper and more flexible than fixed-function logic boards. Radio links are cheaper and more flexible than running wires down the street. If the fire trucks can override the lights, they can get to the fire faster. If all the lights report diagnostics to a central monitoring station, we can dispatch repair crews more efficiently and not need to make as many inspections.

The security phase change happens when a series of these changes culminates in a device that has a general-purpose computer inside, connected directly to a network that anyone can tap into with relatively little effort. Suddenly the adversary doesn’t need to drive around the entire city to monkeywrench all the lights. Or crack open the hood of your car to get at the engine control computer’s maintenance interface. Or be physically onsite at your chemical plant to mess with the process controller. I understand jet engines are a service now. I would like to think that those engineers have thought about channel security, at the very least.