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Securing Critical Infrastructure: 4 Steps for Reducing Cyber Risk

For critical infrastructure organizations, the gains of automation and IoT technology have also meant heightened threats. These are the steps security directors can take to reduce cyber risk across their industrial operations.

Companies and organizations are inherently risk-averse. Having regular and predictable business cycles, cash flows and monthly recurring revenues is rewarded by investors and stakeholders. When a company takes on risk, the decision is almost always scrutinized with a cost-benefit analysis. While some forms of risk are manageable and others are not, it is incumbent upon organizational leaders to eliminate risk wherever possible and manage the risk that is impossible to eradicate.

Risk management is paramount for organizations that provide “critical infrastructure” services, whose operational technology (OT) ensures the fabric of our national security and modern ways of life. Many countries have independently identified which vertical industries are considered critical in their region. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security has identified sixteen distinct critical industries that are of strategic importance. As these sectors have modernized their operations in recent decades, the gains in efficiency have also brought new attack surfaces.

Source: www.cisa.gov

How automated systems expose infrastructure to cyber threats

Over the course of the last two months, we have become quite familiar with the term “essential workers” and the risks associated with scaled-down workforces. But this is only part of the critical infrastructure equation. Virtually every vertical in the “DHS-16” also relies on automation to produce and deliver their essential product or service. Everything from generators and turbines to actuators and robots is all controlled by programmable logic controllers (PLC) and the greater OT environment to make things happen. Without their flawless operation, we would not be able to generate electricity, drink clean water or benefit from any of the other critical products or services that define “normal” life.

Risk is constantly changing and critical infrastructure organizations are acutely aware of this. One area that has gained C-level attention in recent years is ensuring the security around OT infrastructure. Whereas two decades ago, boardroom discussions revolved around the security of IT operations, attention has shifted to OT operations because of newly formed attack surfaces and attack vectors. These include the rapid adoption of new technologies such as IT/OT convergence and industrial IoT devices, as well as new threat actors such as malicious (or negligent) insiders or nation-state attacks.

Gaining the upper hand on industrial cyber risk

Despite the increased focus on securing OT environments, critical organizations are still looking for a better approach when it comes to industrial cybersecurity. Fortunately, there are a few steps that every organization can take to reduce risk across their critical infrastructure. 

1. Secure the brains of your industrial operations.

PLCs are central to the operation of OT environments. These devices control the pumps and motors and robots that power massive utility and manufacturing plants. Regular programming changes to the PLC may be normal, but they can also result from a programming error or malware that affected an unauthorized change. Automatic “snapshotting” of configuration changes maintains a “last known good state” of your control systems and preserves an audit trail of any changes that are made. Recording this activity, at specific intervals or any time users make a change, is an essential first step in reducing risk around your most critical infrastructure assets.

2. Gain full visibility across your OT Infrastructure.

Siloed organizations that separately deploy IT and OT security leave critical blindspots in their wake. With security incidents such as Lockergoga, attacks are now architected to infect and propagate across the converged IT/OT infrastructure. While most organizations have some visibility into their IT footprint, it is also essential to have a full inventory of OT assets in your environment. 

Unlike IT devices which often have a lifespan of 36 months, OT devices can maintain a lifespan of decades. Over that period of time, teams often change, maintenance may become lax and in almost all cases meticulous documentation of things like patches and firmware updates are missed. By deploying industrial-grade security that can view your entire organization’s infrastructure, along with asset inventory down to ladder logic and backplane information, you can eliminate the risk of not knowing the full range of assets you need to protect. 

3. Use multiple detection methodologies to identify threats early.

Gaining deep situational awareness of each asset in your environment is crucial to protecting common infiltration points and targets of cyberattacks. It’s equally important to remain vigilant about what is traversing your network, keeping in mind that network traffic and behavior are early warning signs for attacks and attack propagation. Reducing attack risk requires multi-detection capabilities which include policy, anomaly and signature-based detection. Using multiple detection methods can prevent both known and zero-day attacks, while also leveraging the power of the security community to find more threats and thus secure the environment from more attacks earlier.

4. Focus remediation efforts on critical assets and actual exploits.

Whichever OT vendors are present in your infrastructure, chances are you’ll see many vulnerabilities announced over their product lifetimes. In fact, critical infrastructure organizations often operate with hundreds of thousands of vulnerabilities at any given time! It can be unmanageable and impractical to track and remedy all of those vulnerabilities with new ones being announced every day. 

The good news is you don’t have to. Risk is primarily associated with vulnerabilities that become exploits. Once you have a detailed understanding of the specific vendors, model numbers, patch levels and firmware versions inside your OT environment, you can utilize functionality that identifies the vulnerabilities and exploits most relevant to your environment. With a prioritized list of vulnerabilities, based on asset criticality and type of exploit, you’ll be able to triage your response and reduce the highest-risk elements first to keep your environment secure. 

More information on protecting OT environments

Critical Infrastructure will likely continue to widen in scope and additional demands may be placed on these organizations to produce to specific requirements. Continuously re-evaluating risk helps identify areas for improvement. Deploying the right security tools, built for OT environments but easily integrated with existing IT security, can help ensure the rock-solid dependability of the organizations that comprise our critical infrastructure.

For more information on how to upgrade your OT security posture, here are some resources that can help: 

  • Watch the on-demand webinar, “5 Things You Need to Know About IT/OT Convergence”
  • Check out the infographic on “The 7 Most Unsafe Gaps for Industrial Cybersecurity”
  • Read our whitepaper on “Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity” and how to actively secure your industrial environment in the new era of distrust.

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