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Vulnerabilities / Threats

5/1/2019
10:30 AM
Marc Wilczek
Marc Wilczek
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Digital Transformation Exposes Operational Technology & Critical Infrastructure

The convergence of OT and IP-based IT networks makes society more vulnerable, requiring CISOs to rethink defense.

Thanks to technology advances in operational technology (OT) and critical infrastructure, physical and cyber systems can now be combined and leveraged in new ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. These new capabilities provide the ability to control and optimize a broad range of operational infrastructure based on changing demand or other requirements.

For example, the production line in a manufacturing plant can now be programmed remotely to manufacture component X one week and reprogrammed to manufacture component Y the next week. Likewise, goods held in warehouses can be shipped from one point to another the moment a consumer places an order, making real-time interaction and always-on IT nonnegotiable requirements.

These are significant advances that increase the efficiency of operations while lowering costs. There's also a significant problem: The manufacturing plants and warehouses are now connected to broader computer networks, allowing distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and other forms of cyberattacks to penetrate these organizations in new ways. As a result, the production line or warehouse can be manipulated or completely shut down. And a modern factory or warehouse typically doesn't have enough employees to fix the problem or continue operations manually. Moreover, in increasingly more cases, real-time becomes the de facto standard, not allowing any interruption or delay without putting reputation and revenue at risk. 

Manufacturing plants and warehouses aren't alone. These IT risks affect organizations across an array of use cases, including manufacturing, energy and utilities, transportation, building automation, and a variety of critical infrastructure required to maintain our quality of life. OT is undergoing digital transformation that will expose highly critical operational assets to potentially catastrophic security breaches.

A Perfect Storm
As OT becomes increasingly transformed digitally, connecting computer networks to systems such as conveyor belts, heating and cooling systems, and molding machines introduces security risks. Many devices and networks were not built with security in mind, and many rely on legacy technology requiring manual effort and human interaction to detect and mitigate cyber threats, resulting in downtimes or creating other unwanted consequences.

In the quest for higher operational efficiency, many organizations are running industrial control systems (ICSs) over IP-based IT networks, outsourcing support to third parties and allowing remote connectivity. Although the convergence of IT and OT improves operations, it eliminates the traditional gap between the two realms. The result is a broader attack surface, exposing OT to a multitude of DDoS attacks and other cyber-risks.

Together, these two forces have created new vulnerabilities that must be addressed, and organizations need to be consciously aware of both the business value and the associated risk.

Attacks Are Multiplying
The problem is particularly acute for organizations utilizing supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and ICSs. According to a study conducted by Forrester Research on behalf of Fortinet, nearly 90% of these organizations have suffered a security breach in those systems. The stakes are high. Interruptions of manufacturing processes by cyberattacks can compromise quality control and result in severe productivity losses. For example, if a pharmaceutical company product run were interrupted, the maker likely would be obligated to destroy an entire batch of medication, since its quality could not be guaranteed. The same fate would befall many other entities, such as water treatment plants, food companies, oil refineries, and any other facility in which product quality control is intrinsic to production.

Cybercriminals recognize the potential for disruption posed by today's IT landscapes. As a result, the sophistication and destructive capability of attacks are increasing. For example, in Germany, a steel mill was targeted by attackers. As a result, multiple components in the production line failed, and the blast furnace could not be brought to a control state. The heat subsequently caused severe physical damage to the plant.

In April 2014, hacktivist group Anonymous launched multiple DDoS attacks aimed at Boston's Children's Hospital, causing a major blackout by taking the website, portals for staff and patients, and other digital resources offline for a whole week.

Another DDoS attack unleashed in October 2015 targeting Liberia became so powerful that it knocked out the African country's Internet the following year.

Conclusion
The financial losses and service interruptions caused by these attacks are having a subtler negative result as well. Knowledge of the breaches is discouraging some organizations from upgrading their operational technology systems with productivity-enhancing digital technology. Aware that installing sensors on industrial equipment might open them up to compromise, many would prefer to suffer inefficiency as the price they must pay for keeping their systems secure.

Bad actors — including well-funded nation-states with a deep knowledge of industrial systems and the willingness to inflict costly disruption — are gearing up. The frequency, sophistication, and severity of these threats is well known. The new and dangerous threats to OT and critical infrastructure require an innovative defensive strategy. With digital transformation implemented and the convergence of IT and OT networks, many organizations are not ready for the attacks and threats they are facing.

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Marc Wilczek is a columnist and recognized thought leader, geared toward helping organizations drive their digital agenda and achieve higher levels of innovation and productivity through technology. Over the past 20 years, he has held various senior leadership roles across ... View Full Bio
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