Managing Increased Cyber-Physical Security Threats in a Hyper-Connected World

Physical security and cybersecurity can't be managed separately.

Tom Kopecky, Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder, Ontic

July 28, 2021

5 Min Read

When it comes to enterprise security, the physical world and the cyber domain have long been treated as separate — like a Venn diagram whose circles don't overlap. Those days are over.

Companies are facing an enormous increase in threats, with physical exposures interacting with the cyber domain and vice versa. In a survey commissioned by the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence, 69% of respondents noted that their companies are experiencing a dramatic increase in physical threat activity compared with last year. At the same time, VMware's 2021 Global Security Insights Report found that 63% of US cybersecurity professionals said attacks increased due to employees working remotely.

As such, it has become increasingly apparent that companies need to unify their cyber and physical security operations. As recent cyber-physical threats have shown, to dismiss one area puts the other at risk.

In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2025, 50% of asset-intensive organizations such as utilities, resources, and manufacturing firms will converge their cyber, physical, and supply chain security teams under one chief security officer role.

Taking this step can facilitate communication amongst security teams, which not only helps in preventing these attacks in the first place but also ensures that organizations are better prepared to handle them should they materialize.

Utility Infrastructure Becoming Commonplace Attack Targets

Examples of recent cyber-physical threats are numerous.

Earlier this year, a hacker remotely accessed the Oldsmar, Fla., water treatment plant computer system. In the attack, they attempted to increase the amount of sodium hydroxide in the water supply to potentially dangerous levels. While the method for the attack was cyber, had it not been caught, thousands of people could have been harmed by drinking that water.

Another example is the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, one of the nation's largest pipelines, which carries refined gasoline and jet fuel from Texas up the East Coast. The cyberattack provoked a shutdown for five days, leading to temporary fuel shortages along the East Coast. While no individuals were harmed, the economic impact of an event like this could be staggering. With gas prices going up, so will the cost of other goods and services as gasoline surcharges are taken into account when shipping and transporting items.

Cybersecurity experts have warned about infrastructure attacks for years. Driven by outside actors and, in the case of Colonial Pipeline, criminal elements operating on foreign soil, these incidents have generated massive headlines.

These events underscore the determination of threat actors outside of organizations. Furthermore, we know that when it comes to critical industries such as those involving infrastructure, most cyberthreats stem from insiders. Taken altogether, this highlights the need for organizations to maintain consistent security controls to address internal and external threats.

While external threat hunting is usually known to fall under the purview of network security teams, insider threats are typically the responsibility of physical security teams that bring an intelligence-driven approach. That's why it's imperative for security teams to approach protection from a converged point of view, especially as cyber-physical systems address a new set of risks that few security and risk leaders have had to consider.

Data Centers Are No Longer Purely Cyberattack Targets
Conversely, the digital world is built from physical assets. Attacks against data centers can cost millions of dollars for data center operators. The impact on their clients could be much greater in terms of downtime and lost opportunities.

In April, the US Department of Justice arrested a Texas native who attempted to blow up an AWS data center in Virginia. Just one month after the AWS attack, a fired security employee at a Microsoft data center in Cheyenne, Wyo., returned to the facility with a gun.

While data centers might anticipate their threats to manifest on the cyber side of the spectrum, the threat landscape has vastly expanded. In these moments of heightened awareness, security teams should review the physical security controls at their facilities and ensure that they are proactively hunting for threats that may disrupt operations.

Hardware Is a Gateway for Cyber-Physical Threats
Executive protection and site security can also be affected by cyber intrusions. Back in January, a former security technician for home security company ADT admitted to accessing customers' home security cameras over four years.

Hacking events like these become physical security issues when live video footage access is abused. A threat actor may easily be able to breach the home security system of a celebrity or high-profile executive to gain insight into their routines, personal life, and habits. Alternatively, malicious actors could access video surveillance systems at an organization and use that footage when planning and executing an attack. Studying live footage can reveal the daily schedule of key executives, building floor plans, and the exact locations of employees at a certain time — creating numerous threats for an organization and its people.

Breaking Down Silos
Siloed operations are endemic to the corporate world, across nearly all functions. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that security teams focused on the physical and cyber realm might not collaborate — or even speak the same language.

Systems that straddle the physical and cyber domains require that security professionals shift their mindsets. Today, IT systems affect physical outcomes and corporations must be able to appropriately handle the convergence of these threats.

Physical security and cybersecurity are intrinsically connected, and it is no longer effective to manage these threats separately. Cyber-physical incidents can quickly lead to physical harm, destruction of property, environmental disasters, and worse, and all signs point to an increase in these destructive events.

About the Author(s)

Tom Kopecky

Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder, Ontic

Tom Kopecky oversees corporate strategy while leading a team of security intelligence experts that develop protective intelligence programs and support clients in maximizing the economic value of Ontic. He also lends his many years of experience in protective intelligence and threat assessment to the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence. Prior to Ontic, Kopecky founded two boutique service firms that focused on global threat assessment and security consulting, as well as intelligence collection for both litigation support matters and protective security applications.

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