8 min read

Industrial organizations are prime targets for spies, criminals, hacktivists and even enemy countries. Spies from rival organizations seek ways to access industrial control systems (ICS) so they can steal intelligence and technology and gain a competitive advantage. Criminals look for ways to ransom companies by locking down IT systems. Hacktivists and terrorists are always looking for ways to disrupt and even endanger life through IT and international antagonists might want to hack into a public system (e.g. a power plant) to harm a country’s economic performance.

This article looks at a number of areas where CTOs need to focus their attention when it comes to securing their organizations from cyber attacks.

Third Party Collaboration

The Target breach of November 2013 highlighted the risks of poor vendor management policies when it comes to cybersecurity. A third party HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) provider was connected into the retailer’s IT architecture in such a way that, when it was hacked, cybercriminals could access and steal credit card details from their customers.

Every third party given access to your network–even security vendors–need to be treated as possible accidental or deliberate vectors of attack. These include catering companies, consultants, equipment rental firms, maintenance service providers, transport providers and anyone else who requests access to the corporate network. Then there are sub-contractors to think about.

The IT team and legal department need to be involved from the start to risk assess third-party collaborations and ensure access if granted, is restricted to role-specific activities and reviewed regularly.

Insider and Outsider Threat

An organization’s own staff can compromise a system’s integrity either deliberately or accidentally. Deliberate attacks can be motivated by money, revenge, ideology or ego and can be among the most difficult to detect and stop.

Organizations should employ a combination of technical and non-technical methods to limit insider threat. Technical measures include granting minimum access privileges and monitoring data flow and user behavior for anomalies (e.g. logging into a system at strange hours or uploading data from a system unrelated to their job role). One solution which can be used for this purpose is a privileged access management system (PAM). This is a centralized platform usually divided into three parts: an access manager, a session manager, and a password vault manager.

The access manager component handles system access requests based on the company’s IAM (Identity and Access Management) policies. It is a good practice to assign users to specific roles and to limit access for each user to only those services and areas of the network they need to perform their role. The PAM system automates this process with any temporary extra permissions requiring senior authorization.

The session manager component tracks user activity in real time and also stores it for future audit purposes. Suspicious user activity can be reported to super admins who can then terminate access.

The password vault manager component protects the root passwords of each system and ensures users follow the company’s user password policy.

Device management also plays an important part in access security. There is potentially a big security difference between an authorized user logging on to a system from a work desktop and the same user logging on to the same system via their mobile device.

Non-technical strategies to tackle insider threat might include setting up a confidential forum for employees to report concerns and ensuring high-quality cyber security training is provided and regularly reviewed. When designing or choosing training packages, it is important to remember that not all employees will understand or be comfortable with the technical language, so all instructions and training should be stripped of jargon as far as possible.

Another tip is to include plenty of hands-on training and real-life simulations. Some companies test employee vulnerability by having their IT department create a realistic phishing email and recording how many clicks it gets from employees. This will highlight which employees or departments need refresher training.

Robust policies for any sensitive data physically leaving the premises are also important. Employees should not be able to take work devices, disks or flash drives off the premises without the company’s knowledge and this is even more important after an employee leaves the company.

Data Protection

Post-GDPR, data protection is more critical than ever. Failure to protect EU-based customer data from theft can expose organizations to over 20 million Euros worth of fines.

Data needs to be secure both during transmission and while being stored. It also needs to be quickly and easily found and deleted if customers need to access their data or request its removal. This can be complex, especially for large organizations using cloud-based services.

A full data audit is the first place to start before deciding what type of encryption is needed during data transfer and what security measures are necessary for stored data. For example, if your network has a demilitarized zone (DMZ), data in transit should always end here and there should be no protocols capable of spanning it. Sensitive customer data or mission-critical data can be secured at rest by encrypting it and then applying cryptographic hashes.

Your audit should look at all components of your security provider. For example, problems with reporting threats can arise due to insufficient storage space for firewall logs.

VPN Vulnerabilities

Some organizations avoid transmitting data over the internet by setting up a VPN (Virtual Private Network). However, this does not mean that data is necessarily safe from cybercriminals.

One big problem with most set-ups is that data will be routed over the internet should the VPN connection be dropped. A kill switch or network lock can help avoid this.

VPNs may not be configured optimally and some may lack protection from various types of data leaks. These include DNS leaks, WebRTC, and IPV6 leaks. DNS leaks can occur if your VPN drops a connection and your browser defaults to default DNS settings, exposing your IP address. WebRTC, a fairly new technology, enables browsers to talk to one another without using a server. This requires each browser to know the other’s public IP address and some VPNs are not designed to protect from this type of leak. Finally, IPV6 leaks will happen if your VPN only handles IPV4 requests. Any IPV6 requests will be sent on to your PC which will automatically respond with your IP address.

Most VPN leaks can be checked for using free online tools and your vendor should either be able to solve the issue or you may need to consider a different vendor.

If you can, use L2TP (layer 2 tunneling protocol) or, OpenVPN rather than the more easily compromised PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol).

Network Segmentation

Industrial organizations tend to use network segmentation to isolate individual zones should a compromise happen. For example, this could immediately cut off all access to potentially dangerous machinery if an office-based CRM is hacked.

The Purdue Model for Industrial Control Systems is the basis of ISA-99, a commonly referenced standard, which divides a typical ICS architecture into four to five zones and six levels. In the most basic model, an ICS is split into various area or cell zones which sit within an overall industrial zone. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) sits between this industrial zone and the higher level enterprise zone.

Network segmentation is a complex task but is worth the investment. Once it is in place, the attack surface of your network will be reduced and monitoring for intrusions and responding to cyber incidents will be quicker and easier.

Intrusion Detection

Intrusion detection systems (IDS) are more proactive than simple firewalls, actively searching the network for signs of malicious activity. An IDS can be a hardware device or a software application and can use various detection techniques from identifying malware signatures to monitor deviations from normal traffic flow.

The two most common classes of IDS are network intrusion detection systems (NIDS) and host-based intrusion detection systems (HIDS). While NIDS focus on incoming traffic, HIDS monitor existing files, and folders.

Alarm filtering (AF) technology can help to sort genuine threats from false positives. When a system generates a warning for every anomaly it picks up, agents can find it hard to connect failures together to find the cause. This can also lead to alarm fatigue where the agent becomes desensitized to system alarms and misses a real threat. AF uses various means to pre-process system alarms so they can be better understood and acted upon. For example, related failures may be grouped together and then assigned to a priority list.

System Hardening and Patch Management

System hardening means locking down certain parts of a network or device or removing features to prevent access or to stop unwanted changes. Patching is a form of system hardening as it closes up vulnerabilities preventing them from being exploited.

To defend their organization, the IT support team should define a clear patch management policy. Vendor updates should be applied as soon as possible and automated where they can.

Author Bio

Brent Whitfield is CEO of DCG Technical Solutions, Inc. DCG provides a host of IT services Los Angeles businesses depend upon whether they deploy in-house, cloud or hybrid infrastructure. Brent has been featured in Fast Company, CNBC, Network Computing, Reuters, and Yahoo Business.

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