Safeguarding Industrial IoT: A rising security challenge – Part 1

Trevor Daughney, VP of Product Marketing at Exabeam

The Fourth industrial revolution has unleashed a myriad of opportunities for organisations eager to leverage a new generation of connected Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices and reap the rewards of enhanced data sharing, operational efficiencies, and productivity, says Trevor Daughney, vice president of product marketing at Exabeam

Around the globe, cities are deploying innovative ‘smart’ technologies to connect everything from power grids to transport infrastructures in a bid to improve the quality of citizens’ lives. Healthcare is another sector that’s quickly adopting IoT technology to streamline care delivery and give patients more control over their treatment. Meanwhile, manufacturers are rapidly upscaling their smart factory investments, utilising everything from programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and embedded systems to IIoT devices in their production facilities.

As a result, connected operational technologies (OT) are rapidly becoming the backbone of modern commercial automation solutions, business operations and critical infrastructure. However, the rapid proliferation of such devices has opened the door to external security threats.

Indeed, a recent 2019 study by the Ponemon Institute reveals how OT environments used to run critical utilities like electricity and water are now top targets for cyber attackers looking to cause “severe” damage. With 54% of utility companies saying they expect an attack in 2020, the digitalisation of OT assets represents a clear and present danger when it comes to protecting critical infrastructure and initiating cyber resilience that works.

Similarly, according to a recent smart factory report by Deloitte and MAPI (Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation) cyber threats now represent a growing menace for manufacturing companies looking to converge IT and OT across their operations.

The trouble with digital transformation

Until recently, the risk posed by the adoption of IP-based connectivity in industrial environments was largely overlooked. In the past, legacy control systems had specific functions and were often unconnected to other systems, which made attacks unlikely and difficult to achieve. This complacency resulted in the rise of the notion that industrial assets are immune to cyber attack if they are isolated from the Internet or other vulnerable corporate networks.

However, the infamous Stuxnet worm attack carried out on an Iranian nuclear facility proved a major wakeup call for industrial enterprises across a range of industries. Designed to bypass standard network security programmes, Stuxnet reprogrammed nuclear centrifuges to perform cycles that resulted in them disintegrating.

It was an attack that demonstrated how adopting IP-based connectivity between industrial systems also results in increased exposure to highly complex and sophisticated cyberattacks. Simply put, IIoT devices often have native integration with IP networks. While this helps to streamline operational tasks, it also means that everything else that’s connected is now a vulnerable soft target for global cyberthreats – in much the same way as standard IT devices.

Mind the security gap: the IT and OT disconnect

It’s not just IIoT devices that are being exploited within OT systems. Historically, cyberattacks have targeted IT assets that enable business operations, like computers and mobile devices, for data theft. However, cyberattacks against IT devices – including networks and systems that transmit or distribute power to an OT system – can be triggered to hijack the control systems that operate critical infrastructure. The result of such hacks will be physical damage, widespread outages, and the loss of operational data.

This poses a significant challenge for organisations where IT and OT leaders have, until now, operated in independent silos. A less than ideal scenario if organisations are leveraging IoT devices that need to be integrated to – and then managed – using existing IT network infrastructures.

The growing convergence of IT and OT security means every organisation needs to gain an integrated overview of global security aspects and vulnerabilities in a bid to prevent infiltration that could result in the destruction of critical infrastructure or data loss.

It’s time to apply industrial cyber security

From the automotive industry to smart cities and big pharma, organisations with IIoT and IT devices within their OT systems need to evaluate exposure and maximise their ability to quickly detect, respond to and mitigate attacks. However, providing device security can be challenging – especially since IIoT and IT devices are inherently different, and IIoT devices were never designed to integrate with security management tools. In my next article, I’ll explore these challenges together with the frameworks and solutions that organisations can apply to achieve industrial cyber security that works.

The author is Trevor Daughney, vice president of product marketing at Exabeam

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