IIoT Security: Attacks Grow More Likely, Users Unaware

A few weeks ago hackers of industrial systems reached a new milestone. For the first time in history, someone was able to break into the safety shutdown system of a critical infrastructure facility. Roaming undetected through the system for an unknown amount of time, the hackers finally got stopped when they inadvertently put some controllers into a “fail-safe” mode that shut down other processes, which alerted plant staff that something was wrong.

The danger was not just in the safety mechanisms themselves, but for the whole plant. “Compromising a safety system could let hackers shut them down in advance of attacking other parts of an industrial plant, potentially preventing operators from identifying and halting destructive attacks,” said cyber experts interviewed by Reuters.

Plan Ahead

That facility was lucky this time around. What about next time? What about the next plant? Rather than relying on luck, it is better to plan for the future. As attacks grow more likely, those systems that are secure by design, that offer zero attack surface, that are undetectable on the Internet, stand a much better chance. This has always been Skkynet’s approach, and as the threats increase, it makes more and more sense.

In fact, the industrial world is largely unprepared for these kinds of attacks. Having evolved for decades cut off from the Internet, until recently there has been little need to change. And a surprising number of users seem unwilling to acknowledge the risks. According to a recent article in ARS Technica, hundreds of companies across Europe are running a popular model of Siemens PLC (Programmable logic controller) with TCP port 102 open to the Internet. “It’s an open goal,” commented security researcher Kevin Beaumont.

Government Mandates

The situation has attracted the attention of governments, who realize the need to protect critical infrastructure for the sake of their citizens. The United Kingdom has issued a new directive authorizing regulators to inspect cyber security precautions taken by energy, transport, water and health companies, reports the BBC. The National Cyber Security Centre has published guidelines, and companies that fail to comply are liable for fines of up to 17 million pounds. “We want our essential services and infrastructure to be primed and ready to tackle cyber-attacks and be resilient against major disruption to services,” said Margot James, Minister for Digital.

IT to OT Challenges

What has brought all of this into focus over the past few years has been the increased awareness of a need for process data outside of the production facility. Companies are recognizing the value of the data in their OT (operational technology) systems, and want to integrate it into their IT systems to help cut costs and improve overall efficiency for the company as a whole. What they may not realize is that the tools of IT were not designed for the world of OT, and the security practices of OT are not adequate for the Internet.

The WannaCry virus that affected many companies worldwide last year is a case in point. Companies using VPNs to protect their IT-to-OT connections found out first-hand that a VPN merely extends the security perimeter of the plant out into an insecure world. A breach in an employee email can expose the whole plant to the threat of a shutdown. “WannaCry is the personification of why computers on the corporate networks should not be directly connected to OT networks,” according to Gartner Analyst Barika Pace in a recent report, Why IIoT Security Leaders Should Worry About Cyberattacks Like WannaCry, January 30, 2018. “It is also the reflection of the inevitable convergence of IT and OT. Based on your risk tolerance and operational process, segmentation, where possible, is still critical.”

Segment Your Systems

By segmentation, Pace means dividing networks into security zones, and maintaining security between each zone through the use of firewalls, DMZs, data diodes and other similar technologies to ensure that if one system gets hacked, it cannot affect others. Segmentation is part of a secure-by-design approach that Skkynet endorses and provides. Our software and services offer a way to connect IT and OT systems through DMZs or the cloud without opening any outbound firewall ports.

A Siemens PLC in this kind of segmented system could be accessed by authorized parties, and exchange data in both directions, without opening TCP port 102 to the Internet. Managers of critical infrastructure that implement this secure-by-design approach to segmentation are not only ready for government inspection, they have taken the best precaution against those who would intrude, hack, and attack their mission-critical systems.

As attacks on critical infrastructure become more likely, users must become aware, and prepare. The acknowledged benefits of IIoT need not entail unnecessary risk—securing an industrial system can be done, and done well. A big step is to segment your OT system though a secure-by-design approach, such as that offered by Skkynet.