The threat to our critical national infrastructure (CNI) system is at an unprecedented high with reported cyber-attacks from a number of factions, suspected infiltrations from nation states, and the NCSC warning that these systems remain a high-profile target and exceptionally vulnerable.
Earlier this month, researchers found that just four lines of code implanted in a device on a factory floor could identify and list networks, trigger controllers and stop processes and production lines. In fact, responding to Corero’s Freedom of Information requests, 70% of critical infrastructure institutions – ranging from police forces to NHS trusts, energy suppliers and water authorities – confirmed they’d experienced service outages in their IT systems within the last two years.
Service outages and cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure have the potential to inflict significant, real-life, disruption by preventing access to essential services such as power, transport and the emergency services. Recognizing the damaging impact they can inflict, malicious actors have started crafting malware specifically to target these systems and many believe the next attack is just around the corner.
With the heightened threat, and possibility of significant fines under the new Networks and Information Systems (NIS) directive which came into effect in early May, it’s crucial that organizations implement security measures before damage is done.
Industrial control systems at risk
In recent months, we have seen a greater number of sophisticated cyber threats against all parts of critical infrastructure. Indeed, last October a DDoS attack on the Swedish Railway took out their train ordering system for two days, causing travel chaos. Similarly, last May’s Wannacry ransomware attack caused many NHS systems to be unavailable (e.g. access to patients’ medical records) causing operations to be cancelled. There is no doubt that a successful attack on the more vulnerable management systems can cause widespread disruption. Moreover, such attacks can result in network downtime, which in turn can have a serious economic impact as it can affect production, impact output, cause physical damage and even put people’s lives in danger.
In a separate Corero study last year, we found that most UK critical infrastructure organizations (51%) are potentially vulnerable, due to failure to detect or mitigate short-duration surgical DDoS attacks on their networks and deploy technology which can detect or mitigate such attacks. Modern DDoS attacks represent a serious security and availability challenge for infrastructure operators, because even a short amount of downtime or latency can significantly impact the delivery of essential services. Indeed, DDoS attacks can disrupt the availability of critical services we use as part of our everyday life, while potentially allowing attackers to plant weaponized malware. Critical infrastructure operators, including energy, transport, communications and emergency services should not be leaving DDoS attack protection to chance.
Attackers are taking advantage of the escalating number of industrial IoT devices, which underscore the growing risk of very large botnet-based DDoS attacks. These devices are transforming industrial sectors by reducing costs and providing better visibility of networks, processes and security. However, despite their benefits, these devices suffer from basic security vulnerabilities and it is precisely this lack of security that makes them such an attractive target for hackers.
NIS Directive introduces changes to critical infrastructure security
Protecting critical infrastructure from cyber-attacks has become a top government priority. The EU’s NIS Directive, adopted into UK law as the NIS Regulation, aims to raise levels of security and resilience of network and information systems. Indeed, now that the legislation is implemented into UK law, critical infrastructure outages will have to be reported to regulators, who have the power to impose financial penalties of up to £17 million to providers of infrastructure services that fail to protect against cyber-attacks on their networks. Consequently, operators of essential services and industrial control systems need to up their game to be resilient to today’s cyber-threats. However, rather than being seen as just more red-tape, or a financial telling off for non-compliance, the regulation should be seen as a golden opportunity to improve the UK’s cyber-security posture.
Despite the huge fines and multiple warnings, 11% of the critical infrastructure organizations that responded to Corero’s 2018 study admitted that they do not always ensure that patches for critical vulnerabilities are routinely implemented within 14 days, as recommended within the Government’s 10 Steps to Cyber Security guidance. Paradoxically, almost all the organizations that responded to the request (98%) are following government advice about network security, by adhering to the Network Security section of the 2012 guidance.
To reduce the risk of a catastrophic outcome that risks public safety, organizations need to ensure their industrial control systems are secure.
Organizations need to take a serious look at their own operating model and ensure that robust protection against cyberthreats are in place. It is not acceptable that service and data loss should be excused, under any circumstances, when the technology and services to provide proper protection is available today.
One of the biggest challenges that organisations running critical infrastructure systems now have, is that they are increasingly connecting those networks to the broader IT infrastructure, for reasons of operational efficiency and effectiveness. The potential for hackers being able to access these devices from the outside and potentially change settings or, launch DDoS attacks to block local changes taking effect, could be very damaging indeed, depending on the systems being targeted. Organisations vulnerable to such attacks need to ensure they are putting the right protection in place, including real-time automatic DDoS protection, as even small attacks getting through, for even a short period of time, could have serious implications.
In addition, to avoid smart devices being enslaved into DDoS botnets, organizations need to pay close attention to the network settings for those devices and, where possible, protect them from access to the Internet and to other devices.
Organizations can include IoT devices alongside regular IT asset inventories and adopt basic security measures like changing default credentials and rotating a selection of strong Wi-Fi network passwords regularly.
Businesses can certainly protect their networks from DDoS attacks fueled by IoT-driven botnets by deploying an always-on, automated solution at the network edge, which can detect unusual network activity and eliminate threats from entering a network, in real-time.
Sean Newman, Director at Corero Network Security
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