Industrial control systems still soft target for cyber attackers: Vendor report

Despite knowing for some time that improperly protected Internet-connected industrial control systems are vulnerable to attacks that can cause catastrophic harm to businesses and communities ICS systems are still easy targets, if numbers collected by a security vendor are representative.

“Many sites are exposed to the public Internet and trivial to traverse using simple vulnerabilities like plain-text passwords,” says the global ICS risk report released this morning by CyberX. “Lack of even basic protections like automatically-updated anti-virus enables attackers to quietly perform reconnaissance before sabotaging physical processes such as assembly lines, mixing tanks, and blast furnaces.”

The report looked at anonymized data obtained from over 850 production ICS (also known as operational) networks of CyberX customers in a 12 month period starting September 2017.

Among the findings:

–69 per cent of networks had plain-text passwords traversing the network. A lack of encryption in legacy protocols like SNMP and FTP exposes sensitive credentials — making cyber-reconnaissance and subsequent compromise relatively easy;

–Operational networks are protected because they are air-gapped is a myth: 40 per ent of industrial sites have at least one direct connection to the public internet, making them more easily accessible to adversaries and malware;

–53 per cent of sites had obsolete Windows systems such as Windows XP. The report admits due to ICS-specific
factors such as narrow maintenance windows, legacy applications, and older hardware some systems can’t be patched. If so, continuous monitoring of those systems may be necessary, as well as better network segmentation;

–84% of industrial sites had at least one remotely accessible device;

–57 per cent of sites weren’t running anti-virus protections that update signatures automatically;

–16 per cent of sites had at least one wireless access point. They need to be monitored and patched;

This is a follow-up to a similar report done a year ago, and CyberX says, there isn’t much difference. Other than fewer sites running old versions of Windows, “the industry may not have changed much over the course of the past year.”

Among the problems, the report notes, is that industrial networks contain a complex mix of specialized non-IT protocols, including proprietary protocols developed for specific families of industrial automation devices. This heterogeneous mix complicates security for OT environments. In addition, many OT protocols were originally designed when robust security
features such as authentication were not even a requirement — because it was assumed that simply having connectivity
to a device was sufficient authentication.

Still, a number of standard IT protocols are in use. The SMB protocol is widely used across IT and OT networks, the report points out. “Managers should note that vulnerabilities in the decades-old SMB protocol were a key factor in the costly
WannaCry and NotPetya attacks of 2017.”

“Not everything can be protected at once,” the report admits, “and the deeply complicated and critical nature of OT networks mean that by definition systems cannot be easily taken offline in order to install upgrades, patches, or anti-virus.”

What’s the solution: “Ruthless prioritization is required.”

–inventory all ICS assets;

–identify vital assets (those that could cause catastrophic harm, revenue loss, lawsuits, theft of intellectual property) and use technologies such as automated ICS threat modelling to reduce risk;

— discover likely attack paths, then practice — through table-top and other exercises — how to defend against them.

–mitigate and protect by looking at everything from weak password and password policies, closing off unauthorized or unnecessary Internet connections, direct connections between OT and IT networks, open ports, device patching, lack of network segmentation. And get rid of the walls between administrators of OT and IT networks.

Download the full report here. Registration is required.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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