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Cyber-physical attacks : a growing invisible threat
Loukas G., Butterworth-Heinemann, Newton, MA, 2015. 270 pp. Type: Book (978-0-128012-90-1)
Date Reviewed: Feb 19 2016

A cyberphysical system is generally considered to be an embedded system with network connectivity. Embedded systems are defined in this book, after Peter Marwedel [1], as “information processing systems embedded into a larger product,” which is consistent with an early (1980s) IEEE definition, recently repeated in the ISO/IEC/IEEE 24765:2010 Systems and Software Engineering Vocabulary. Their exposure to the external world, coming from the interfaces, such as operator, network, process, and database interfaces, which can be collectively called an “attack surface,” makes them subject to various kinds of threats. This is due to all sorts of vulnerabilities, which are defined in this book as: “a flaw or weakness in a system’s design, implementation, operation, or management that could be exploited to violate the system’s confidentiality, integrity, or availability.”

Well-outlined terminology is one of the strongest parts of the book, which is important in the broader context, given that the book is intended as “an accessible introduction to the variety of cyberphysical attack approaches and application countermeasures that have already been employed in the real world or in a research setting” (p. 16). Furthermore, the author states, “It has not been written for experienced computer security professionals or postdoctoral researchers, but for undergraduate students and nonexperts, including physical security professionals with limited exposure to computer science,” which sets the stage for determining the book’s contents.

The book is essentially a survey of various kinds of security breaches in cyberphysical systems. The survey is done systematically using categorization. This can be accomplished in two basic ways: by industry sector or by device type. The author uses a mixed approach, distinguishing between small systems, mostly medical devices, such as insulin pumps and implants (defibrillators); distributed systems, which include vehicles, such as automobiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); or even larger systems, such as buildings (home automation), traffic lights, and so on, down to networks involving industrial control systems (ICS).

A crucial and central element subject to security violations is message passing, which involves interception of and interference with messages flying around various kinds of buses and interconnecting in a cyberphysical system. Therefore, the use of data transfer protocols, such as controller area network (CAN), Flexray, time-triggered architecture (TTA), and others, such as Modbus and distributed network protocol, v3 (DNP3), has to be investigated with respect to their vulnerabilities and potential threats. The author does it to some extent, but not uniformly, just referring to the subject in various sections.

The most valuable part of the book to me is the discussion of steps in cyberphysical attacks, which are divided into reconnaissance, discovery, intrusion, attack delivery (comprising nearly two dozen examples), and antiforensics. Dissecting the attacks this way makes a lot of sense from an analytical perspective and facilitates further studies of the subject matter.

On the other hand, the discussion of protection mechanisms and secure design principles is probably the weakest part of the book. While a good number of protection mechanisms are listed and discussed, the most important mechanism, communication protocols, is not touched at all. Furthermore, too few pages (only five) are spent on secure design principles. Even though it was likely intended to be so, one should realize that this is a key element of cyberphysical system security and more comprehensive coverage would be appropriate. One of the two perspectives could be brought into view here, either implementation issues, as described in another book on embedded systems security, reviewed here in 2012 [2], or an architectural view, as presented, for example, in Architecture and design considerations for secure software [3].

When I look at the book’s contents from a broader perspective, it makes me think about similarities with an approach taken a couple of decades ago by Peter Neumann, when he began describing individual cases of computer safety issues. He collected a significant number of examples and kept updating them on a regular basis via the web [4], ultimately publishing a book [5]. Making periodic and frequent updates of such cases via the web makes a lot of sense, since the number of new security violations in cyberphysical systems grows nearly every week, and the printed book production process can never catch up (see for example the BMW security breach, which is very much relevant to the subject, but occurred after the book was published).

Overall, the book meets most of the reader’s expectations, fits into the market niche, and can be used as a valuable resource for some of the topics covered.

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Reviewer:  Janusz Zalewski Review #: CR144178 (1605-0311)
1) Marwedel, P. Embedded system design. Springer, Dordrecht, the Netherlands, 2003.
2) Kleidermacher, D.; Kleidermacher, M. Embedded systems security. Elsevier/Newnes, Oxford, UK, 2012. See CR Review No. 140784 (1303-0169).
3) SwA Forum and Working Groups. Architecture and design considerations for secure software. In the Software Assurance Pocket Guide Series, Development, Volume V, Version 2.0. US Department of Homeland Security, Washington, DC, May 18, 2012.
4) Neumann, P. SRI International Computer Science Laboratory. (01/24/2016).
5) Neumann, P. Computer-related risks. Addison-Wesley/ACM Press, New York, NY, 1995.
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