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Manufactured Disruption: Securing Cyber-Physical Systems

Pratik Thakker, Chief Operating Officer, ThreatModeler
By Pratik Thakker Chief Operating Officer, ThreatModeler

Cyber-physical systems, which combine computing, networking, and physical components to perform tasks in the real world, have become essential in modern manufacturing. These systems allow for improved efficiency, accuracy, and automation, but they also introduce security risks.

The adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) has also accelerated as manufacturers increasingly connect physical devices to the internet to facilitate data collection and communication. However, these connected devices can also be targeted by hackers seeking to gain access to a facility’s operations or steal sensitive data.

According to a recent survey conducted by ThreatModeler, more than 67 percent of IT leaders agree that their team has found it difficult to keep their architectures resilient in the face of increased IT/OT architecture complexity and rising threats.

To protect against the risks introduced by cyber-physical systems and IoT devices, manufacturers must adopt proactive threat modeling to identify vulnerabilities and implement remediation measures.

Losing Control

According to a recent study conducted by ThreatModeler, more than 67 percent of IT leader respondents agree or strongly agree that their team has found it difficult to keep architectures resilient in the face of increased IT/OT architecture complexity
and rising threats.

One way hackers target cyber-physical systems is by homing in on hardware devices, such as sensors or control systems, for easy entry. These devices may have weaker security measures in place, making them attractive targets.

Once hackers gain access to a physical device, they can then use it as a foothold to access other parts of the system. For example, the “Triton” malware was used to target a petrochemical facility in Saudi Arabia in 2017. The malware gained access to the facility’s control systems, leading to the shutdown of the plant’s safety systems.

While no physical harm was caused in the Saudi Arabian incident, it demonstrated the potential consequences of attacks on these systems. Hackers can disrupt operations, steal sensitive data, and cause physical damage to a facility. In severe cases, such attacks can even cause injuries or fatalities.

Security Assurance

To mitigate these risks, manufacturers need to adopt threat modeling for their cyber-physical systems. Threat modeling involves mapping out the connections between IT and operational technology (OT) to identify vulnerabilities and prioritize security measures.

There are several key elements to an effective threat modeling program. First, it is important to have a clear understanding of the system’s architecture and components, as well as the data and processes they support. This includes understanding the relationships between different devices and systems, as well as the data flows and communication channels. This can be done with threat modeling tools, with automation allowing the ability to build the threat model based on the existing environment.

Tools can also update the threat model automatically and maintain the threat database, all in real-time, in response to system and threat changes. These types of intelligent vulnerability detection tools find weaknesses in the system and streamline the process of identifying specific threats and vulnerabilities.

Taking Corrective Measures

Once vulnerabilities have been identified through threat modeling, it is important for manufacturers to implement remediation measures to address them. This can include a variety of actions, depending on the specific vulnerabilities and the needs of the system.

Some potential remediation measures include:

Patching Software: If a vulnerability is identified in the software running on a device or system, it may be possible to patch the software to fix the vulnerability by installing updates provided by the software vendor.

Implementing Authentication Measures: If a vulnerability is related to weak authentication practices, stronger measures such as multi-factor authentication can be implemented to reduce the risk of unauthorized access.

Segmenting the Network: By dividing the network into smaller, isolated segments, it can be more difficult for an attacker to spread an attack throughout the system. This can limit the “blast radius” of a successful intrusion.

Implementing Access Controls: Access controls can be used to limit the ability of unauthorized users to access certain parts of the system or access sensitive data. This can include measures such as user authentication, permissions, and access lists.

Monitoring and Detection: Implementing monitoring and detection systems can help to identify potential attacks or suspicious activity in real time, allowing for timely response and remediation.

There are many other potential remediation measures that could be implemented depending on the specific needs and vulnerabilities of the system. It is important for manufacturers to assess their vulnerabilities and implement appropriate measures to address them.

Making Manufacturing More Secure

An effective threat modeling program should be an ongoing process that is integrated into a manufacturer’s overall security strategy. It should involve all relevant stakeholders, including security personnel, operations employees, facility management, plant employees, as well as the executive team, and it should be based on a thorough understanding of the organization’s assets, operations, and potential threats.

The consequences of unnoticed or ignored vulnerabilities can be severe. To mitigate these risks, manufacturers need to adopt proactive threat modeling for their cyber-physical systems to map the connections between IT and OT.

By understanding the system’s architecture and components, identifying potential threats and vulnerabilities, and implementing remediation measures, manufacturers can reduce the risk of attacks on their facilities and operations in this age of accelerating connectivity.

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