Our nation's critical infrastructure and the industrial control networks that manage them are under constant threat from a host of malicious actors — including nation-states, politically or financially motivated hackers, insiders, and disgruntled ex-employees.
Unfortunately, all industrial control system (ICS) networks share a common weakness: they were built before cyber threats existed and are not designed with built-in external security controls.
A breach of an ICS network can be disastrous and expensive. Consequences range from physical and environmental damage and costly downtime for manufacturing processes to putting lives at risk. In addition, a breach can bring heavy fines from regulators and lawsuits from parties claiming injury or damage, and it can also shake shareholder confidence.
Given these stakes, let's consider the five most common threats to ICS networks and how to reduce the risk associated with them.
Risk 1. Poor Network Configuration
The weaker the configuration, the greater the likelihood of a successful attack. For example, once a control device has been exposed to the Internet due to a poor configuration, both phases of a breach can occur — the attacker can gain a foothold in the network and exploit a sensitive asset.
Mitigation: ICS devices should never be directly connected to the Internet. Strict network segmentation should be implemented and the integrity of the network should never be sacrificed for the sake of convenience.
Risk 2: No Audit Trail
An audit trail is essential for understanding what's going on in any network. However, logging mechanisms in some ICS environments do not exist or are incomplete. In many cases, security teams lack the knowledge of operational technologies (OT) to know how to collect logs or where to look for them.
Mitigation: Basic record-keeping is crucial for both the incident response and the forensic investigation of an attack. It is also required for any type of regulatory compliance audit. This begins with understanding the limitations of the environment — what data is being monitored and collected, and what isn't. One hundred percent visibility, monitoring, and control should be the goal, including the collection and aggregation of all logs.
Most ICS networks have components that generate an audit trail, but too often these capabilities are underutilized. All incidents should be automatically reported to the security incident response team, logged, and correlated via a real-time audit mechanism.
Risk 3: Lack of Control
Many ICS environments do not have basic controls for managing assets that are considered table stakes in IT networks. As a result, security hygiene in OT networks is often an afterthought and lacking in the following ways:
- Patches can't be easily deployed and usually aren't.
- There's no centralized, up-to-date inventory of assets, configurations, software versions, patch levels, etc.
- Internal security policies are not monitored or enforced.
- The security model is based on a "if it works, better not mess with it" paradigm.
Mitigation: Implementing a centralized and automated asset management capability for OT networks is crucial. Without an up-to-date and accurate inventory of ICS assets, especially the controllers responsible for managing physical processes, it is virtually impossible to assess risks, apply patches, and detect unauthorized changes and activity.
Risk 4: Employee Ignorance
Just as in IT environments, employees pose a significant risk to OT network security. Phishing attacks, social engineering, and risky browsing behaviors all threaten to punch a hole that can be exploited by attackers to compromise the IT, OT or both networks via lateral movement.
Mitigation: Security training, network segmentation, and multifactor authentication can all help prevent breaches caused by employee lack of awareness, policy violations, or human error.
Risk 5: Insider Attacks
Insiders in OT environments pose the same security risk as in IT environments. The source can be malicious, such as a disgruntled employee, an insider who is paid to steal or sabotage assets, or an internal account compromise attack by an outsider. An insider threat can also be unintended, caused by human error.
Mitigation: Performing a risk assessment to identify and address vulnerabilities such as over-privileged accounts, insiders with access to resources they don't need to do their jobs, and orphaned accounts is essential to reducing the attack surface for insider threats. Knowing and monitoring OT attack vectors, which are primarily the network and direct access to devices via serial ports, can also defeat these threats. Network activity anomaly detection and routine device integrity checks can identify malicious activity before it's too late. Finally, unifying IT and OT security, because both environments are often interconnected, can help protect against attacks that originate on one network and attempt to move laterally to the other.
Despite the cultural divide between IT and OT, both environments share a common set of threats and vulnerabilities. And while the consequences of an OT security breach are decidedly more physical in nature, many of the lessons learned and best practices from IT can help prevent them.
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