Time for OT, IT to align priorities

One of the most difficult aspects of cyber security lifecycle for ICS engineers is the maintain phase. Here are some tips to establish a good baseline before getting to the maintain level.


In 1982, a Canadian pipeline exploded. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever seen from space, according to former U.S. presidential advisor Thomas Reed. The culprit? Nation-state espionage, including a Trojan embedded in the pipeline's control system software. Quite possibly, it is the first known cyber attack on physical infrastructure.

Fast-forward three decades, Security magazine reported in 2014 that nearly 70% of critical infrastructure companies have suffered a security breach. And as we know, many more incidents go unreported.

At the recent RSA security conference in San Francisco, Wurldtech's Frank Marcus led a peer discussion that underscored the heightened profile of cyber security in the age of the Industrial Internet. Addressing the audience of global critical infrastructure experts, Marcus spoke about the evolution of threats against critical infrastructure, starting with the 1982 incident, through Stuxnet, all the way to the German Steel Mill incident last December.

While enterprise cyber attacks may grab bigger headlines, such as the Sony incident, cyber attacks on physical infrastructure can have greater consequences, including environmental damage and human safety. So far, most attacks on critical infrastructure have centered on economic espionage, Marcus said, in which attackers watch, learn and prepare for a future attack.

Growth of breaches

The RSA discussion echoed the broadly held view at the conference: Breaches and attacks will get more numerous and sophisticated and will aim at disrupting infrastructure in industries such as energy and transportation. As an example, consider the Havex malware, which initially targeted the energy sector. It can infiltrate a system via a phishing attack and then connect via OPC to critical systems to probe devices with OPC commands. Another heavily publicized threat is BlackEnergy, a Trojan horse malware that targets energy infrastructure by exploiting a Windows vulnerability. As ICS equipment continues to be more connected for new levels of operational benefits, security and risk mitigation will become increasingly important.

So how can we limit risks to avoid critical infrastructure accidents and attacks? That's part of what the attendees of Marcus's talk wanted to know.

Most attacks on operational technology end up perpetrated through the corporate IT infrastructure, including networks, applications and endpoints. One of the biggest opportunities is for operational technology (OT) and IT side of companies to align their security priorities.

That won't be easy. The OT side of the house may not welcome operational delays caused by multiple authentications and security checks prescribed by IT to safeguard systems—yet IT is accountable for protecting systems that may have been closed for decades but are now increasingly connected. A new Evans Data Corporation report revealed "connected industrial devices have increased 191% in 2014."

Dealing with downtime is another barrier. Unlike typical computer hardware and operating systems, embedded devices used in industrial control systems don't update every two to three years. Instead, many devices may be 10 to 20 years old and were built in the days when security was not a major concern. Without appropriate security updates, or mitigation controls, a successful attack can impact production, leading to costly downtime.

Nate Kube founded Wurldtech Security Technologies in 2006 and as the company’s chief technology officer, is responsible for strategic alliances, technology and thought leadership. Courtesy: ISSSourceUpdating and modernizing industrial security to protect those legacy systems should be a chief priority, as well as ensuring new machines and systems are implemented together with advanced security—such as OT-specific firewalls and intrusion prevention—and then bridging the old with the new to implement security at different layers for a defense-in-depth approach. One should continue to ask the question: "What portion of my operational environment is serviceable for security?" Through process or technology, the answer is indicative of security maturity.

As was so often repeated at RSA, no one solution will be enough. It will take the right combination of people, process and technology to mitigate industrial security risks.

Nate Kube founded Wurldtech Security Technologies in 2006 and as the company's chief technology officer, is responsible for strategic alliances, technology and thought leadership. This article originally appeared on ISSSource. Edited by Joy Chang, Digital Project Manager, CFE Media, jchang@cfemedia.com.

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