How quickly could a cyber-attack take down critical infrastructure?

March 2019 Cyber Security

The recent national infrastructure challenges have thrown into sharp relief the impacts down time can have on businesses, individuals and the national economy.

Doros Hadjizenonos
Doros Hadjizenonos

Most local industrial and manufacturing organisations have moved in recent years to upgrade operational technology (OT) environments - including industrial control systems (ICS) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, switches, sensors, valves and manufacturing technologies - to advanced and connected modern Industrial IoT (IIoT) systems that support automation, remote monitoring and analytics.

In many cases, organisations are opting to merge older OT environments with their IT systems. This aging OT may also be integrated across multiple sites and systems to enable a single control system through a cloud-based platform. These smarter, more connected systems typically support cost savings, efficiency and enhanced health and safety.

However, some of these OT systems are decades old, designed in a pre-cyber risk era, and are vulnerable to malware and other cyber threats. The very connectedness that enables smarter operations also expands the organisation’s risk profile, making systems that worked historically suddenly interconnected and highly vulnerable devices that can be compromised remotely.

Critical infrastructure is being increasingly targeted by cyber criminals, with a reported 51% of organisations experiencing a SCADA/ICS security breach within the past 12 months. Cybercriminal organisations may target particular organisations to hold systems hostage for a ransom, manipulate stock prices, gain a competitive advantage, raise political awareness or for other malicious reasons.

A successful attack can lead to immediate disruption, and even destruction of physical assets and essential services like water, electricity, and fuel. In the case of critical national infrastructure such as a power grid, dramatic and far-reaching damage is caused by down time. In manufacturing, a system crash or unexpected down time can have a devastating ripple effect on production, turnover, human resources and customer retention.

Attempts to address risk by simply bolting on firewalls, sandboxes, and IPS systems into these OT environments present an unacceptable, disruptive, and uncertain outcome. Security tools need to be strategically designed into the OT environment at the highest level, and purpose-built to understand the sorts of protocols, communications, and services that have been deployed to preserve safety and availability.

Securing the OT environment

The convergence of OT and IT demands unified, automated security, implemented in a strategic manner designed specifically to support the OT environment. Unlike traditional IT security strategies, OT security strategies also need to include access control, processes for at-speed recognition of actions that are beyond the scope of normal, and ruggedised appliances designed for use in extreme conditions.

Organisations need to shift from a reactive to a proactive security posture, implementing strategies such as segmentation to limit exposure in the event of a compromise, and multi-factor authentication to mitigate the physical access control risk. Security needs to be driven deep into the OT infrastructure, segmenting systems and devices, actively monitoring east-west traffic, and isolating compromised devices.

Organisations must also deploy security devices purpose-built for OT environments to protect the network from IT, cloud Internet-based threats, as well as establishing continuous visibility into devices and their behaviours with a combination of NAC (Network Access Control) and behavioural analytics. Wireless communications must be secured across all IIoT device communications protocols. And all security systems need to be integrated within an OT-specific, real-time threat intelligence platform for vulnerability protection, deep visibility and granular control over proprietary ICS and SCADA protocols.

Securing the OT environment should be a top priority for industrial and infrastructure organisations, since failing to adequately secure these environments could cost organisations dearly, and could impact stakeholders far beyond the immediate environment.

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