Protect physical assets from cyber-attacks

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Recent cyber-attacks have disabled and even shut down physical assets. Robust foundational security and training staff, able to recognise an attack can help mitigate the threat, as ABB’s Rob Putman explains.

Edge devices and data analytics

As cyber security specialists, we must navigate an ever-changing threat landscape, one that is made even more complex by the increased interconnectivity between Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT), as companies look to leverage edge devices and data analytics, as well as remote connectivity, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the threat surface evolves, the industry must guard against attacks on key physical infrastructure, carried out by a range of malicious actors, including nation states and criminals intent on blackmail.

The chemicals sector, a high-value target for cyber-criminals

Cyber-criminals view the chemicals sector, as a high-value target, because of the potential cost

In 2017, not long after a ransomware attack that targeted Maersk, the world’s largest shipping firm, made the news around the world. Another cyber-attack, this time targeting physical industrial assets, generated fewer headlines, and yet could have resulted in both real, as well as financial, damage.

Cyber-criminals view the chemicals sector, as a high-value target, because of the potential cost, both financial and reputational, to the operator, should production be interrupted or stopped entirely.

Cyber security vulnerabilities put physical assets at risk

The attack in question, a ‘Triton’ custom malware attack on a petro-chemical facility in Saudi Arabia, targeted a safety system, taking over system controllers. Bugs in the code triggered an emergency shutdown, but could have led to the release of toxic and explosive gases. It was a vivid reminder of how cyber security vulnerabilities are increasingly putting companies’ key physical assets at risk.

Two more-recent high-profile incidents illustrate my point. In February, a Florida water treatment plant was hacked. The malicious actor remotely accessed the system for three to five minutes, during which time they opened various functions on the screen, including one that controls the amount of sodium hydroxide (NaOH) in the water. The hacker changed the NaOH from about 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million, which could have resulted in a mass poisoning event.

Colonial Pipeline cyber-attack incident

Then, in May, the Colonial Pipeline system that originates in Houston, Texas and carries gasoline, and jet fuel, suffered a ransomware attack. Using a VPN, hackers targeted back-office IT systems, forcing Colonial to shut down IT hosts and network infrastructure, severing communication with those OT systems that are responsible for communicating ‘transactional data’ associated with fuel delivery.

In this instance, a single compromised password disrupted Colonial’s ability to invoice its customers. This dependency on OT data stopped pipeline and business operations, and the company was elected to pay the hackers an initial ransom of US$ 4.4 million, in order to restore operations. The Colonial attack was multi-dimensional, in that it not only impacted Colonial’s business, but also the wider US economy and national security, since the pipeline transports nearly half of the east coast’s fuel supplies.

Outdated IT system elevates physical risk

The increased interconnectivity between IT and OT can also create vulnerabilit

Attacks such as these prove that, armed with little more than a laptop, an email account and access to the dark web, determined hackers can cause disproportionate damage to physical infrastructure.

As mentioned at the outset, the increased interconnectivity between IT and OT can also create vulnerability. Producers often want to know: Is it risky to connect a production asset or their operational environment to the Cloud? My answer is, if you do so without having done any risk audits around people, processes and technology, or without enhancing and maintaining that environment, then yes, that is risky.

For example, we often observe that the life cycle of a production asset far outlasts the IT systems that are used to run it. Take a cement kiln. Several generations of plant operators may have come and gone, but that asset may still run, using legacy software, such as Windows XP and why not?

Need to replace aging distributed control systems

Well, that’s fine, if you are not concerned about having that asset compromised, and all that entails. A ‘flat’ IT network, an aging distributed control system, and machines with legacy versions of Microsoft Windows, all these elements, which are still commonplace in many industries, make it much easier for attackers to find and infiltrate a company, without needing sophisticated tools.

The age-old mantra of not interfering with a piece of equipment or software that appears to be working, often applies to the individual assets. For example that cement kiln that are still controlled by the same Windows XP-based control software.

However, if we’re honest, things have changed quite a bit, not because something was broken, but because innovation came in. That same kiln control system is most likely connected to other systems, than when first commissioned and that opens it to exposure to threats that it was never designed for.

The human element

There is a misconception that IoT-connected devices can open companies to risk

There is a misconception that IoT-connected devices can open companies to risk, but many recent, high-profile cyber-attacks have been conducted from a laptop, by hacking someone’s VPN, or are a simple phishing/malware attack. In all these cases, the human element is partly to blame.

Take the Florida attack. The compromised computer at the water treatment facility was reportedly running an outdated Windows 7 operating system and staff all used the same password, in order to gain remote access via the Teamviewer app, which the hacker was then able to use.

Physical and human assets, key to robust cyber security

Discussion on the best way to mitigate the threat is often framed solely around specific technical solutions and ignores the fact that robust foundational cyber security is really driven by two very different, but equally important, types of capital: physical assets (e.g. production machinery), and human assets.

The truth is that smart digital software and industry-renowned cyber security applications, while critical, are in many cases, only as good as the weakest human link in the chain. Industry would, therefore, do well to ask itself the following question: Do we have a security problem, or a complacency problem?

At this juncture, it is important to point out that the majority of companies that ABB works with, are at least aware of the threat posed by cyber attackers, and the potential impact of an attack, on their revenues, reputation and bottom line.

User error and human-generated exposures

Making sure staff are aware of the threat and training them to respond properly, if they are targeted, is vital

However, user error and human-generated exposures are where most of these attacks occur. Those human failures are mostly not due to malicious intent from employees, but to the lack of training of the employees on secure behavior.

Making sure staff are aware of the threat and training them to respond properly, if they are targeted, is vital. However, there are also age demographics at play here. Much of the operations employee base is heading towards retirement and often, there is no plan or ability to backfill these people.

Need to invest in new digital and automated technologies

If you think you don’t have enough people now, in order to stay on top of basic care and feeding of the OT environment, with regards to security, what is that going to be like in 20 years?

For this reason, there must be a major industry reset, when it comes to its workforce. Companies must invest in new digital and automated technologies, not only to ensure that they stay ahead of the curve and mitigate risk, but also to attract the next generation of digitally literate talent.

Robust cyber security is built on solid foundations

When we talk about foundational cyber security, we mean fundamentals, such as patching, malware protection, high-fidelity system backups, an up-to-date anti-virus system, and other options, such as application allow-listing and asset inventory. These basic controls can help companies understand their system setup and the potential threats, identify vulnerabilities, and assess their risk exposure.

The Pareto principle states that around 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. In the context of cyber security, that means 80% of exposure to risk comes from 20% of the lack of security. If companies do the foundational things right, they can manage out a significant amount of this risk.

Importance of maintaining and upgrading security controls

However, having basic security controls, such as anti-virus software in place, is just the first step on that journey. Equally important is having someone within the organisation, with the requisite skill set, or the extra labour bandwidth, to operate, maintain and update those security controls, as they evolve.

Educating, training and recruiting existing employees, and the next generation of talent, along with forging partnerships with trusted technology providers, will ensure that industry can leverage the latest digital technologies, in order to drive business value, and secure physical assets against cyber-attacks.

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