The last few years have seen a rise in the sophistication and frequency of attacks targeting many vital industries. In addition to the rise of international tensions bringing to light new threats aimed at critical infrastructure, advancing technologies have opened new doors for attackers. The increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence-enabled threats have been a popular topic of discussion, but many other vectors of attack pose equally dangerous threats to public safety.
Another major driver of new cyber threats came with the discovery of a modular malware toolkit capable of targeting tens of thousands of industrial control systems (ICS) across different industry verticals. These attacks pose a serious threat to critical infrastructure, such as power grids, water treatment facilities, and manufacturing plants, many of which rely on ICS to operate.
Some of the most potentially devastating and escalating new cybersecurity dangers have been aimed at critical infrastructure systems and public works worldwide. For example, in April 2023, Iranian state-linked hackers targeted critical infrastructure in the US and other countries in a series of novel dropper malware attacks. While not as devastating as other incidents, the previously-unheard of nature of the malware made this attack particularly concerning.
Other attacks on other areas of critical infrastructure in recent years have raised similar fears. In late 2022, the Danish State Railways’ network was temporarily shut down by hackers. Other breaches affecting essential industries continue to be reported frequently, with a ransomware attack affecting manufacturing, communications, public and private healthcare, and education being reported by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) as recently as March 2023.
Attacks targeting public infrastructure that have the potential to take out essential systems — such as hospitals, water facilities, electricity, and energy production — are even sometimes referred to as “killware” for their ability to cause disruption leading to real-life deaths.
ICS and Critical Infrastructure
One reason for the increase in these attacks is the growing interconnectedness of ICS with other systems and networks. While this allows systems to benefit from the “network effect” and introduce new functionality, it also introduces new potential entry points for hackers to exploit.
Similarly, the rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has led to an increase in the number of devices and sensors connected to ICS, making it more difficult to secure the systems.
Industrial control systems are designed to control and monitor a wide range of physical devices and processes. This can include things like valves, motors, and sensors to ensure that they operate efficiently and safely.
Programmable logic controllers, distributed control systems, and supervisory control and data acquisition systems are all also enabled by the use of ICS. These devices and systems can be distributed across multiple locations and may be connected to other networks, such as corporate networks or the Internet.
Because of their integral role in managing physical processes, securing ICS and IIoT environments is essential to ensure the safe and efficient operation of critical industrial systems. But securing these environments can be challenging due to their inherent complexity, as well as the widespread use of outdated legacy systems and proprietary protocols. As a result, specialized security tools and techniques are required to protect ICS in IIoT environments from cyberattacks and other security threats.
Cyber Threats to Critical Infrastructure
While the number of potential attack vectors is virtually endless in today’s complex, interconnected systems, there are a number of particularly concerning threats to critical infrastructure that have emerged.
Advanced persistent threats (APTs) are a type of cyberattack specifically designed to target and compromise IIoT environments. APTs are typically carried out by highly skilled and organized threat actors using sophisticated and stealthy techniques to gain unauthorized access to vital systems and remain undetected for extended periods of time.
APTs targeting ICS in IIoT environments typically involve multiple stages. Hackers begin by conducting extensive reconnaissance to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the target environment. They may use various techniques — such as social engineering, spear-phishing, and network scanning — to gather information about the target organization.
Attackers are adept at identifying openings, and unpatched software vulnerabilities, stolen credentials, and compromised third-party suppliers are all potential open doors. Once inside, attackers are free to unleash zero-day exploits, custom-designed malware, or other malicious programs to gain control of the connected systems.
Addressing APT and Other Critical Infrastructure Attacks
APTs and other common forms of attack can exploit a wide variety of openings to access a system, including using legitimate credentials. As such, they are particularly devastating when turned on systems that rely on conventional perimeter security. Once they get past the firewall or other perimeter security measures, they essentially have free rein to steal data or cripple internal systems.
This does not mean that vulnerable critical infrastructure cannot be protected, however. Self-protecting data can be an effective defense against APT attacks targeting IIoT environments by providing an additional layer of protection that directly addresses the greatest weaknesses in traditional network security.
Self-protecting data works by using encryption, access controls, and other security measures to protect data throughout its lifecycle, from creation to disposal. In a Zero-Trust system, files themselves are coded with the ability to recognize malicious activity and counter it immediately, regardless of who performed the action.
This means that even if an attacker gains access to the data, they will be unable to read or modify it without the appropriate decryption keys or credentials. Likewise, approved users are blocked from accessing or performing harmful actions, whether on purpose or by accident.
Zero-Trust Security in Critical Infrastructure IIoT Applications
In an IIoT environment, self-protecting data can be used to protect sensitive information, such as configuration data, operational data, and customer data. For example, self-protecting data can be used to encrypt configuration files for ICS devices, making it more difficult for an attacker to modify the settings of these devices. Similarly, self-protecting data can be used to encrypt customer data, such as personally identifiable information (PII) or financial information, making it more difficult for an attacker to steal.
Additionally, self-protecting data can help organizations detect and respond to APT attacks by providing visibility into how data is being accessed and used within critical ICS. By monitoring access logs and other data-related activities, security teams can detect suspicious behavior and take appropriate action to mitigate the threat.
Sertainty’s foray into the Transient World is manifested in multiple Bi-National Research and Development (BIRD) Proposals\Submissions. These innovative solutions have the potential to aid government agencies such as Homeland Security as well as companies in the transportation and energy industries.
As a leader in self-protecting data, Sertainty leverages proprietary processes that enable data to govern, track, and defend itself. These protocols mean that even if systems are compromised or accessed from the inside, all data stored in them remains secure.
At Sertainty, we know that the ability to maintain secure files is the most valuable asset to your organization’s continued success. Our industry-leading Data Privacy Platform has pioneered what it means for data to be intelligent and actionable, helping companies move forward with a proven and sustainable approach to their cybersecurity needs.
As the digital landscape evolves and networks become more widely accessible, Sertainty is committed to providing self-protecting data solutions that evolve and grow to defend sensitive data. Security breaches may be inevitable, but with Sertainty, privacy loss doesn’t have to be.