Cyber security: Trusting your source for drivers, software tools

Some of the most published cyber security events have been traced back to malicious content embedded on a trusted user's laptop through an e-mail or downloaded document. Is your process control network safe?


Its two o’clock in the morning and the control system is down. Production has stopped. An automation technician has just arrived. He is reviewing the system status as we read this post. He finds the issue in a few minutes. He knows the solution, but needs to reload the controller. Unfortunately, he finds that this new laptop does not have the right drivers. He is stuck. He goes to the manufacturer’s website to get the new drivers, but since its 2:00 a.m., the website is “under maintenance.” He feels intense pressure to get the plant up and running. He scours the web for the driver and finally finds it at a “” website. A warning pops up in his browser saying that the file might not be safe. But the shift manager is on his shoulder. So he ignores the warning and downloads the driver. He successfully loads the controller, and he is a hero for getting the plant online.

However, three weeks later there are some strange controller failures. Resetting seems to work, but every time it stops production. The accounting department is concerned that there are strange invoices that have been automatically paid. IT has reported that internet traffic is actually peaking between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. No one even thinks how this could be related to a controller reload just weeks before.

Some of the most published cyber security events have been traced to inadvertent infection of a process control network through a trusted user’s laptop. While the above example gave clear warning that the driver might have malicious content, in many real world examples the malicious content was embedded in an emailed or downloaded picture, a PDF file, or an executable utility.

Often these infected items are found in “water holes.” These “water holes” are places professionals frequent for information and tools. I am sure you have some of your favorite websites. Those who wish to exploit you network also know these are favorite spots. Unfortunately in many cases these sites are poorly monitored or configured, and can easily be exploited to host malicious software.

We all know what to do when everything is okay, but when the plant is down do we always choose the safest path? A good system anticipates the need for drivers, backups, and tools so that they can be found from trusted sources.

So have you discussed with you contractors and technicians where they get drivers, and software tools? If not, you might find the “watering hole” to not be such a comforting place.

This post was written by Bruce Billedeaux. Bruce is a senior consultant at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization and more.

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