The radio frequency remote controllers used for safety critical industrial applications are less secure than typical garage door remotes, according to a new report from Trend Micro.

The cybersecurity firm tested leading vendors’ radio frequency (RF) remote controllers — the type typically used to control basic operations of cranes, drills and mining equipment — gaining control of each of them with little difficulty.

According to the report, the RF controls are now the “weakest link” in industrial applications, leaving them vulnerable to local and remote attacks.

Globally there are millions of vulnerable units installed, the report says, potentially giving unauthorised access to heavy industrial machinery and environments. The authors argue the risk will increase with the expected boom in connected industrial devices.

The report, A Security Analysis of Radio Remote Controllers for Industrial Applications, tested the RF controls from seven global vendors operating in industries like manufacturing, construction and transportation. In each instance researchers were able to gain control of the remotes and pilot attached machines.

Scant security

The researchers claim a random drive within an area with a 10km radius gave them access to more than a dozen construction sites using the remotes, eight of which allowed them to run tests on equipment. The more extensive tests were conducted in a controlled environment.

The remotes are vulnerable because they lack rolling code, have weak or no cryptography and lack software protection, according to the report. Even consumer level remote controllers for cars and door locks offer more security, the report says, because they at least have some form of rolling code, preventing “replay attacks” where attackers record legitimate transmitter signals to use later.

“Our research shows that there is a discrepancy between the consumer and industrial worlds. In the consumer world, the perceived risks have pushed the vendors to find reasonably secure, albeit imperfect, solutions such as rolling codes,” the report concludes.

“In the industrial world, where the assets at risk are much more valuable than a fancy house or car, there seems to be less awareness.”

Trend Micro urges vendors, including the seven they tested, to improve security with firmware upgrades, continue to build on open protocols and consider future evolutions or iterations when designing next-gen systems.

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