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Where does Blockchain fit into the IIoT?

Part 11 of Data Communication for Industrial IoT

Nothing I’ve read suggests that blockchain will replace SSL for IoT security.  Blockchains are “distributed ledgers” that are known to be tamper-proof (though there are ways to tamper with them in actuality if you own enough of the computing power validating the transactions). This design works fine for certain Internet applications like bitcoin, but I don’t see the blockchain fitting well into the IIoT.

Size matters

First of all, since there is no central ledger, all participating devices must contain, or have access to, the entire ledger.  No entry can ever be removed from the ledger.  As the number of devices grows, and the number of transactions it contains grows, the size of the ledger grows geometrically.  The size of the bitcoin blockchain is roughly doubling every year and currently is over 60GB.  For an IoT node to fully trust the blockchain it would need a geometrically growing amount of storage.  That’s obviously not possible.

So, individual devices can prune the block chain and store only the last few minutes or seconds of it, hoping that nearby peer devices will provide independent confirmation that their little piece of the blockchain is cryptographically secure.  That produces a possible line of attack on the device, where nearby devices could lie, and produce a satisfactory probability of truth in the “mind” of the target device.

Thus security is based on the availability of massive storage, and attempts to reduce that storage requirement diminish security.  As far as I can tell this is an unsolved problem right now.

Too much connectivity?

The second problem with blockchains is that they assume that every transaction in the system must be transmitted to every participant in the blockchain.  Yes, when somebody’s fridge turns on in Paris, every one of the billions of devices participating in the blockchain must be told.  If they are not, then their local copy of the blockchain is inconsistent and they cannot trust the next transaction, which they might actually be interested in.  As the number of devices and transactions rises, the amount of worldwide network bandwidth required to maintain the integrity of the blockchain grows geometrically.  One article I read says that on a 10Mbit Internet connection the theoretical maximum number of transactions in the entire bitcoin universe that connection could sustain would be 7 transactions per second.  Seven.

The result of these two limitations is that a blockchain probably cannot be used to carry the actual data that the devices produce.  Instead it is more likely to be used as an authentication mechanism.  That is, a device that is legitimately on the blockchain can be verified as being itself based on something that the blockchain knows.  My personal opinion is that it sounds very much like the blockchain would become a distributed certificate authority.  Instead of having the current SSL “chain of trust” of certificates, you would have a “blockchain of trust”.  But since an individual device could not contain the entire blockchain you would still need a server to provide the equivalent of certificate validation, so there’s your point of attack.

There are some examples of IoT devices using blockchains, like a washing machine that buys detergent using bitcoins, that are using misdirection to claim the use of blockchains.  Yes, they are using blockchains in their bitcoin transactions because that’s how bitcoin works, but the maintenance data they produce (the real point of the blockchains-for-IoT conversation) are not being transmitted via blockchain at all.

I have yet to see a practical application of blockchains to IoT data or even to IoT authentication.  The conversation at the moment is in the realm of “it would be nice” but the solutions to the implementation problems are not clear.  Incidentally the same problems exist for bitcoin and there are no clear solutions in that space either.

DoublePulsar – Worse Than WannaCry

In a world still reeling from the recent WannaCry attacks, who wants to hear about something even worse?  Nobody, really.  And yet, according to a recent article in the New York Times, A Cyberattack ‘the World Isn’t Ready For’, the worse may be yet to come—and we’d better be prepared.

Reporting on conversations with security expert Mr. Ben-Oni of IDT Corporation in Newark, NJ, the Times said that thousands of systems worldwide have been infected with a virus that was stolen from the NSA at the same time as the WannaCry virus.  The difference is that this second cyber weapon, DoublePulsar, can enter a system without being detected by any current anti-virus software. It then inserts diabolical tools into the very kernel of the operating system, leaving an open “back door” for the hacker to do whatever they want with the computer, such as tracking activities or stealing user credentials.

“The world is burning about WannaCry, but this is a nuclear bomb compared to WannaCry,” Ben-Oni said. “This is different. It’s a lot worse. It steals credentials. You can’t catch it, and it’s happening right under our noses.”

The concern is that DoublePulsar can remain hidden, providing a platform from which hackers can launch attacks at any time.  It may already be running on systems in hospitals, utility companies, power infrastructure, transportation networks, and more.  Ben-Oni had secured IDT’s system with three full sets of firewalls, antivirus software, and intrusion detection systems.  And still the company was successfully attacked, through the home modem of a contractor.

Closing the Door on DoublePulsar

Severity of the threat aside, this scenario points out once again the inherent weakness of relying on a VPN to secure an Industrial IoT system.  Had that contractor been connecting to a power plant, an oil pipeline, or a manufacturing plant over a VPN, it is likely that DoublePulsar could have installed itself throughout the system.  As we have explained in our white paper Access Your Data, Not Your Network, this is because a VPN expands the plant’s security perimeter to include any outside user who accesses it.

This threat of attack underscores the importance of the secure-by-design architecture that Skkynet’s software and services embody.  By keeping all firewalls closed, a cyber weapon like DoublePulsar cannot penetrate an industrial system, even if it should happen to infect a contractor or employee.  SkkyHub provides this kind of secure remote access to data from industrial systems, without using a VPN.

Growing IIoT Security Risks

As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) grows, the security risks grow as well, according to a recent article by Jeff Dorsch in Semiconductor Engineering. According to his sources, the use of the IIoT is expanding both in the amount of new implementations, as well as how the data is being used. In addition to the traditional SCADA-like applications of machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity, monitoring, and remote connectivity applications, it seems that more and more the IIoT is being used to power a data-driven approach to increasing production efficiency. Using big data tools and technologies, companies can employ better and more sophisticated analytics on industrial process data, thereby enhancing operational performance based on real-time data.

With the increase in use of the IIoT comes a corresponding increase in the potential for risk.  Looking at big picture, Robert Lee, CEO of Dragos, and a national cybersecurity fellow at New America commented, “There are two larger problems that have to be dealt with. First, there are not enough security experts. There are about 500 people in the United States with security expertise in industrial control systems. There are only about 1,000 worldwide. And second, most people don’t understand the threats that are out there because they never existed in the industrial space.”

Both of these problems are real, and need to be addressed.  And is often the case in issues of security, the human factor is closely intertwined with both. On the one hand, there is a crying need for security experts world wide, and on the other hand the man on the street, or in our case factory floor, control room, or corporate office, needs to quickly get up to speed on the unique security risks and challenges of providing data from live production systems over the Internet.

Addressing the Problems

As we see it, correctly addressing the second problem can help mitigate the first one.  When we understand deeply the nature of the Internet, as well as how the industrial space may be particularly vulnerable to security threats from it, then we are in a position to build security directly into control system design.  A secure-by-design approach provides a platform on which a secure IIoT system can run.

Like any well-designed tool, from electric cars to smart phones, the system should be easy to use.  When the platform on which a system runs is secure by design, it should not require someone with security expertise to run it.  The expertise is designed-in.  Of course, the human factor is always there.  Users will need to keep their guard up—properly handling passwords, restricting physical access, and adhering to company policies.  But they should also have confidence in knowing that security has been designed into system they are working on.

Thus, the most effective use of our world’s limited security manpower and resources is to focus them on understanding the unique security challenges of the IIoT, and then on designing industrial systems that address these challenges. This has been our approach at Skkynet, and we find it satisfying to be able to provide a secure IIoT platform that anyone can use.  We are confident that through this approach, as the IIoT continues to grow, the security risks will actually diminish for our users.

Secure by Design for IIoT

Securing the Industrial IoT is a big design challenge, but one that must be met. Although the original builders of industrial systems did not anticipate a need for Internet connectivity, companies now see the value of connecting to their plants, pipelines, and remote devices, often over the Internet. The looming question: How to maintain a high level of security for a mission-critical system while allowing remote access to the data?

As you can imagine the answer is not simple.  What’s called for is a totally new approach, one that is secure by design.  This blog entry, published on the ARC Advisory’s Industrial IoT/Industrie 4.0 Viewpoints blog, gives an overview of why standard industrial system architecture is not adequate to ensure the security of plant data on the Internet, and introduces the two main considerations that must go into creating a more secure design.

Don’t WannaCry on your Industrial IoT System

Pretty much anyone who has a computer or listens to the news has heard about the WannaCry virus that swept across the world a few days ago, installing itself on computers in businesses, hospitals, government agencies, and homes, encrypting hard drives and demanding ransom payments.  After scrambling to ensure that our operating systems are up-to-date and protected against this latest threat, the question soon comes up: How can we protect ourselves against similar threats in the future?

“How?” indeed.  That would seem difficult.  Our reliance on networked computers for business and personal use is fully entrenched, and business/personal PCs will remain vulnerable for the foreseeable future.  In the industrial arena, some may conclude this latest attack is yet another reason to hold off on their IoT strategy.  Or, at least: “You should use a VPN to keep it safe.”

And yet neither of these instincts is necessarily correct because (i) it is possible to build a secure Industrial IoT (“IIoT”) system, and (ii) VPN is not the way to do it.  Industrial control systems may use the same underlying operating systems as PCs but they are different in one critical aspect.  They exchange real-time control data, not files and emails.

How WannaCry Got In

WannaCry comes in two parts – an email “bomb” that exploits your anti-virus software and a “worm” that propagates throughout your network by exploiting configuration weaknesses and operating system bugs.  The special danger of WannaCry is that it can infect a computer through email even if you never open the email message.  Once WannaCry arrives through email, the worm takes over to attack the rest of the computers on your network.

The worm portion of the virus spreads itself by finding other machines on the network.  According to analysis of the code by Zammis Clark at Malwarebytes Labs, “After initializing the functionality used by the worm, two threads are created. The first thread scans hosts on the LAN. … The scanning thread tries to connect to port 445, and if so creates a new thread to try to exploit the system using MS17-010/EternalBlue.” (the bug that the virus exploits)

If there is no open port on the other computer, the virus cannot spread.  But the VPN is not much help here.  If anyone on the VPN is struck by the virus, then every machine on the LAN is exposed.  Suppose you have an IIoT system connecting a corporate office to a process control system over a VPN.  If the virus activates on any of the connected machines in the IT department, it can easily propagate itself to any of the connected machines on the industrial LAN.

How to Keep WannaCry Out

The tongue-in-cheek answer is “don’t use email”.  More seriously, industrial systems and IT systems should be separated from one another.  There is no need to read email from the industrial LAN.  Don’t install email software on your industrial computers, and don’t allow email traffic through your firewall.

But industrial systems still need to communicate their data.  How can you reach the data without exposing the industrial network?  The solution is spelled out in detail in the latest white paper from Cogent (a Skkynet company) titled: Access Your Data, Not Your Network. This paper explains why the traditional architecture of industrial systems is not suitable for secure Industrial IoT or Industrie 4.0 applications, and discusses the inherent risks of using a VPN.  But most important, it introduces the best approach for secure IIoT and Industrie 4.0, which is to provide access to industrial data without exposing the network at all.

Specifically, the Skkynet-provisioned devices and the DataHub can make outbound connections to SkkyHub without opening any firewall ports.  These connections are robust channels that support bidirectional, real-time communications for doing monitoring and supervisory control.  The WannaCry virus or anything similar cannot spread into this system because they can’t see anything to infect.  The devices on the network are completely invisible.  Skkynet’s approach provides access to the data only, not to the network.

Cyber Security: Over 90% of IIoT Experts Express Concerns

Respondents to the 2017 Industrial Internet of Things Security Survey by Tripwire paint a pretty bleak picture of cyber security for the Industrial IoT (IIoT).  Among the more than 400 IT professionals responsible for securing their companies against IIoT-related threats, 96% said they expect to see an increase in cyber attacks in the coming year.  At the same time, less than 50% of them feel prepared for those attacks.

This is cause for concern, according to David Meltzer, chief technology officer at Tripwire, who said, Industry professionals know that the Industrial Internet of Things security is a problem today. More than half of the respondents said they don’t feel prepared to detect and stop cyber attacks against IIoT.

At the same time, 90% of these same IIoT experts expect the use of IIoT to increase.  They acknowledge that innovation must go forward, and that the benefits of the IIoT outweigh the costs.  Two out of three of them recognize the need to protect against cyber attacks, despite the fact that less than half of them feel prepared for attacks on insecure IIoT devices.

The Industrial Internet of Things ultimately delivers value to organizations, and that’s why we’re seeing an increase in deployments, said Meltzer.  Security can’t be an industry of ‘no’ in the face of innovation, and businesses can’t be effective without addressing risks. The apparent contradiction of known risks and continued deployment demonstrates that security and operations need to coordinate on these issues.

Meltzer points out that the consequences of insecure IoT implementations leading to a cyber attack are far more severe for industrial applications.  Greater connectivity with operational technology (OT) exposes operational teams to the types of attacks that IT teams are used to seeing, but with even higher stakes, he said.  The concern for a cyber attack is no longer focused on loss of data, but safety and availability. Consider an energy utility as an example – cyber attacks could disrupt power supply for communities and potentially have impact to life and safety.

Here at Skkynet, we could not agree more. It was this kind of thinking that led us to develop our secure-by-design SkkyHub service. Those who understand the risks of the IIoT and the difficulty of securing it using conventional IT or OT approaches recognize the value of what we are doing. We invite every survey participant and anyone else who wants to get the most out of the IIoT to see for themselves how these concerns fall away when using an IIoT platform that is secure by design.