When a major vulnerability recently was found in VxWorks, it may not have hit the radar screen of most IT departments. But for organizations in the automated process control and building automation sectors, the news was troubling. And even more troubling is that hundreds of thousands of organizations don't know they could now be at risk to VxWorks-borne cyberattacks.
The scale of the risk posed by the VxWorks TCP/IP stack vulnerability is the subject of a new report from Kovrr, a firm that analyzes risk for the insurance and financial industries. The report points out that VxWorks is embedded in more than 2 billion devices. Shalom Bublil, co-founder and chief risk officer at Kovrr, says the pervasiveness of Vxworks was eye-opening.
"The surprising thing is the sheer popularity of the operating system embedded in many other devices that are common in manufacturing. This was a surprise to us and I believe it will be a surprise to others as well," Bublil says.
While most IT risk scenarios focus on data loss, the report says that the greatest impact of an exploit targeting this vulnerability could be business interruption — an attack on the ability of a business to deliver products and serve the needs of their customers.
The Kovrr report doesn't name any specific companies vulnerable to such an attack, but it includes companies large enough to have an impact on global stock markets and gross domestic products are affected. The report goes into detail on the methodology used for setting the risk and its potential economic cost.
According to the report, Kovrr took into account the specifics of company attributes and multiplied that score by the number of VxWorks instances on the ground at the company’s facilities. In the example of a theoretical automobile manufacturer, the result is a financial risk of $7,295,000,000. Using the same formula applied to a larger set of industrial companies, Kovrr calculates a total financial risk of nearly $19 billion.
Though Bublil feels confident that the companies will remediate the vulnerability — eventually — he says that there are factors that contribute to a long on-ramp to remediation. "It's not because of our lack of access to expertise, but operational complexity and the overwhelming need for the devices to keep running without interruption means that there are these tradeoffs that the companies have to make," he explains.
In addition, many of the vulnerable devices contain VXworks in a configuration that makes the OS invisible to the company's staff. That makes the manufacturers captive to supply chain issues that can involve multiple layers of suppliers and responsibility. "It's not just the manufacturers that have to patch — they have to get their third-party providers to do that," Bublil says.
This is an example, the report states, of the risk that can come from a single point of failure — in this case, a single embedded operating system. Ultimately, the risk at an individual company comes down to whether or not the company has a reasonable threat scenario in place, Bublil says. "The tricky piece is understanding the security controls the business has in place and the mitigations they can employ," he explains.
Note: This article has been updated to include revised risk dollar amounts based on new assessments provided by Kovrr. A link to the full report has also been included.