Security in Operational Technology: Five Top Trends in 2018

Friday, January 05, 2018

Jalal Bouhdada


“There has been a noticeable increase in security issues and data breaches during recent years in a variety of industries. Following an upsurge of Internet of Things (IoT) devices being utilised in industrial environments and critical infrastructures, it is clear operational technology (OT) is next in line for some very bad news. The critical systems that monitor and control our power distribution networks, our industrial capacity and our connected healthcare systems have been under attack for a long time and while only some of these attacks have been successful, it’s almost inevitable that bigger breaches are yet to come.”

Here are the top five security trends we at Applied Risk are watching out for in 2018:

1. Wireless: a major attack inevitable - Perhaps the single most unsettling piece of news in 2017 was that the ubiquitous WiFi security protocol, WPA2, has a fundamental flaw which is unlikely to be addressed in the majority of WiFi enabled devices. The challenge in 2018 is that the use of wireless communications, including Low Power Area Networks, will continue to grow in line with IoT device deployments. This will result in a far greater OT attack surface which is not being adequately protected with second and third lines of defence. A high-profile malware attack is therefore probable.

2. Healthcare attacks will increase - The most notable victim of the WannaCry malware outbreak in early 2017 was the UK National Health Service (NHS) and many US hospitals have fallen victim to other ransomware attacks. Healthcare is a key industry for IoT adoption with new network connected medical devices delivering life-saving outcomes, but the security of these devices has been too low a priority for too long, accentuating the risk of further attacks.

3. The skills shortage will drive security automation -  It’s been predicted by Frost and Sullivan that the shortfall of skilled security professionals compared to the market needs could be as high as 1.5 million by 2020. This will drive investment in alternative service models for the security industry, and we expect to see innovative new products and processes based on artificial intelligence for both monitoring and testing to safeguard industrial environments.

4. Advanced persistent threats will infiltrate more OT environments - As the Industrial IoT grows in terms of both device numbers and data volumes, inevitably the challenge of detecting and closing down advanced persistent threats (APT) becomes harder to achieve. Even relatively well understood and straightforward techniques, such as data exfiltration over DNS, remain stubbornly easy to exploit. Investments in knowledge sharing and networking monitoring are not yet at the scale required to fight APTs effectively.

5. Security-by-Design will start to improve ICS security - The good news is that heightened awareness of security issues in critical environments is having an effect. More teams are integrating “security-by-design” into their development cycles for industrial control systems, creating products that take into account current and future threat concerns. There is still a long way to go to make this the norm, but legislators around the world are building strong regulations and frameworks which penalise security weaknesses.

About the author: Jalal Bouhdada has over 15 years’ experience in Industrial Control Systems (ICS) security assessment, design and deployment with a focus on Process Control Domain and Industrial IT Security. Jalal has led several engagements for major clients, including many of the top utilities in the world and some of the largest global companies in industry verticals including power generators, electricity transmission provider, water utilities, petro chemical plants and oil refineries.

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