Tag Archives: operational technology

Increased Threats for Manufacturers

Let’s be honest: Operational motivations are about speed and efficiency, not security. For manufacturing organizations to effectively manage cyber risk, they first need to understand that the global digital transformation making businesses run smarter and more efficiently is also creating a widening security gap that must be addressed. 

Creating Industry 4.0

In manufacturing, investments are largely motivated by the pursuit of increased operational effectiveness and efficiency: doing more for a lower per-unit cost. Often, these investments manifest as new operational technology (OT), for instance to enable higher degrees of automation, accelerated assembly timelines and improved real-time insights. New OT gets added to a large information technology (IT) stack, which has often been built over several decades; in that time, the IT stack has become a complex mix of legacy, aging and modern solutions held together by vulnerable protocols and a “don’t touch what isn’t broken” stability strategy.

Industry 4.0, driven by the pursuit of OT, is the connection of industrial equipment that accesses and analyzes centralized operational data. In essence, this is the next industrial revolution in advanced manufacturing and smart, connected, collaborative factories. This new paradigm is characterized by the action of the physical world becoming a type of information system through sensors and actuators embedded in objects and linked through networks. Beyond having the potential to completely change material and manufacturing processes, Industry 4.0 is expected to contribute to more efficient operations by aggregating data across all facilities, letting companies monitor, measure and improve performance. 

This digital transformation introduces new generations of intelligent solutions and integrates these solutions into existing manufacturing processes and technologies including SCADA/ICS and PLCs. In many cases, this collection is controlled by a manufacturing execution system (MES), which is tightly integrated into the manufacturing organization’s ERP system.

See also: The Rules of Digital Transformation

The Threats Grow

Unfortunately, this pursuit of improved operations comes with an unintended consequence: a widening security gap. As manufacturing has become more connected, the threat surface—the collection of points an attacker can use to try to gain access—has increased substantially and now extends from endpoints and networks into cloud services. In fact, the entire manufacturing process (and, by extension, the company that depends on that process running effectively) is more vulnerable to cyberattacks. From opportunistic attacks using commodity malware as a service, to sophisticated hands-on-keyboard attacks that surgically evade defenses, to advanced persistent threats that can operate for years undetected, to industrial espionage using legitimate credentials harvested from phishing campaigns—the list is long, and the consequences can be devastating. 

Modern threats can readily bypass legacy antivirus solutions and take advantage of vulnerability windows. Organizations need solutions that can harden endpoints, prevent polymorphic malware and fileless attacks, mitigate malicious code execution and provide investigation and remediation capabilities with dynamic response to security incidents. 

As the knowledge of the growing threat landscape solidifies, tension develops between two core factions: OT and IT. Security was a distant priority when vendors created their new OT solutions, yet IT understands the security risks and best practices and wants to take the time to do things as safely as possible. OT is under pressure to hit targets and can feel like IT is slowing them down by unnecessarily overstating the risks. Plus, manufacturers must grapple with systemic vulnerabilities in operating systems and control systems. For instance, it’s important to recognize that many industrial communication standards don’t even consider security because they are based on the old firewall model of complete trust within the network. 

But from the shadows comes a third party: attackers. These bad actors see highly connected, unprotected systems built by vendors that know very little about system security and that are content to pass risk to their customer—the manufacturing organization. 

Additionally, the supply chain is vulnerable. As trusted partners, third-party vendors often become the overlooked or unwitting accomplice in criminal activities. A Spiceworks survey of 600 IT and security decision-makers that asked about supply chains highlights this risk. 

While the majority of respondents felt confident in their vendors to keep data safe, nearly half (44%) of firms had experienced a significant, business-altering data breach caused by a vendor. Human error and stolen passwords accounted for 26% of the breaches, while malware played a key role in half of the attacks. 

While past attacks against major manufacturers and industrial facilities were espionage believed to be sponsored by nation states and based on ideology, many of the latest attacks are the work of cyber criminals motivated purely by profit. Of course, criminals don’t need to shut down a facility to extract payment. In many cases they exfiltrate sensitive information (trade secrets, proprietary data and intellectual property, financial details, private emails, account credentials) and then threaten to release it publicly if a ransom isn’t paid. In some cases, attackers have even weaponized regulations like GDPR, which impose fines when breaches compromise personal information. 

See also: Will COVID-19 Be Digital Tipping Point?

As operation and information technologies converge following an almost predictable path of profit-driven natural selection, the leaders of each group have yet to attain a similar level of integration. The operational groups lack the security expertise of their IT counterparts, and IT experts are often excluded from operational decisions, creating an inherent vulnerability that reaches to the top of the organization.

Cybersecurity is not an IT problem to solve; it’s a business risk to manage. Until manufacturers realize that OT and IT are not in competition with each other, they will remain easy prey for cybercriminals who recognize this philosophical flaw and are willing to exploit it.