“The computer running the water treatment plant hasn’t been touched in 20 years.”
This statement would make any IT professional cringe given that security risks have been a concern of IT departments for decades, as their foundations are built on innovation and security, the need to constantly evaluate technology, remain compliant, and take measures to stay ahead of potential breaches. So when there’s a computer that has not been assessed and updated in 20 years, it’s basically an open door to a cybersecurity attack, one that could shake a business to its core, and along with it, customer faith and shareholder confidence.
On the other hand, there is the operational technology (OT) department that tends to let a system run with as little interaction as possible, as long as it’s reliable and keeping manufacturing operations going. And for these departments, security has not historically been a concern since industrial networks were not connected to business networks or the Internet, essentially creating an air-gapped environment. Because of this, OT equipment (PLCs) seldom—if ever—needed to be switched out.
The Convergence of OT and IT
PLCs were first developed in the 1970s to simply replace relays in control systems. Since that time, technology has allowed the expansion of their capabilities so that they can connect with software applications and be integrated into the control systems. The ability to have instant access to production lines, manufacturing facilities and electrical plants allows up-to-the minute metrics, full visibility, and the ability to control changes from anywhere. While there are numerous benefits from this expansion in industrial automation spaces, the added connectivity comes with an increased vulnerability to the industrial control systems (ICS) from intentional, malicious third-party attacks. In today’s connected world, an attack that starts in an IT environment can quickly move to an OT environment and vice versa.
That kind of lateral movement is a preferred attack methodology for hackers. Once a weak link is found in the system and a point of entry is gained, they will quickly own the entire network. That leaves all systems in IT and OT environments at risk for a cross-platform attack.
Why Your ICS Security is at Risk
It’s a scary reality that some PLCs’ webservers can be reachable via online search engines – it can be that simple. But a majority of the time there are a few major culprits behind PLC vulnerability to cyber security hacks:
- The Age and Design of Your PLCs
The good news is that PLCs have a long shelf life, some remaining in operation for over 20 years. The bad news is that the long shelf life of your PLCs means that the ones you may be relying on today to run plant operations potentially could have been integrated 10 – 20 years ago when cyber security risks were not viewed as an imminent threat.If the PLC manufacturers weren’t prioritizing cyber security, security wasn’t necessarily designed into PLCs you may be using to automate your factory. Coupled with the fact that older PLCs likely don’t have enough extra processing power and memory to retrofit security, your ICS is at a greater risk.Read more about the risk of PLC obsolescence.
- The Perceived Importance of ICS SecurityBecause industrial control systems can now be connected to the corporate WAN and Internet, they are accessible to the outside world if not fully protected. Even if the ICS isn’t actually connected to the Internet, modem connections, wireless networks, laptop computers, etc. can be vulnerable to hackers.When you couple that reality with the fact that most controls engineers are not proficient in cyber security, and IT departments are not trained in factory automation equipment or industrial standards, let alone OT security assessment, it can be problematic making a business case for cyber security. In many cases, the belief is that if there hasn’t been proof of a problem, then there’s no problem to address.
The real selling point of the importance of ICS security is to not focus on cyber security at all. Instead focus on the real issue – keeping the automated process running by protecting the validity of the process data. While internally the data may not be deemed confidential, it’s the decision-making component of the process that keeps your factory operating as it should. Any unplanned changes to that data – temperatures, pressures, control commands, etc. – threatens the core of your critical process, resulting in lost process efficiency, damage or shut down.
How to Protect Against Threats to Industrial Control System
Only by creating and implementing an effective ICS security strategy can you minimize the risk of the resulting unplanned downtime and production setbacks. And if these hacks interfere with critical infrastructure – power stations, distribution systems, gas turbines, etc.- they can have a far-reaching, detrimental impact on the health and functionality of the larger community.
If you can’t afford the impact of an ICS security threat, you’ll need to invest to protect the components on which your processes depend. Uncovering vulnerabilities can be difficult to recognize without examinations by security experts. A typical engagement with an ICS security partner includes:
- An OT security assessment inclusive of vulnerability and penetration tests to find what type of information is accessible if hacked;
- A risk analysis which examines each specific vulnerability found during the penetration testing phase;
- A risk assessment that identifies the threats most likely to manipulate each vulnerability — hackers, disgruntled employees, or malfunctioning hardware, etc. Once identified, the risk assessment outlines the capabilities, motivations and objectives behind each threat and predicts the impact on the company. The risk assessment provides a risk rating for each vulnerability with actionable suggestions for minimizing each risk.
Next Steps with ICS Security
ICS/SCADA cyber security seems straight-forward until you dive into the details and even then, vulnerabilities can be difficult to identify. A provider of industrial cyber security solutions that empower critical infrastructure and industrial enterprises to maintain visibility, control and security of their operational environment will help you minimize potential process interruptions and loss within your OT environment.
For over 15 years, Live Automation has built a reputation as the PLC Guys. Contact us to discuss how to get started with an OT security assessment.