Too often I read cybercrime articles where experts lay out a doomsday scenario without following through with strategies for tackling the issues. So today I want to do things differently, raising awareness of a significant problem, but also offering a simple approach to help you avoid it happening to your organisation.
As a matter of course, certain industries, such as oil and gas, manufacturing, and chemicals, already take human life into consideration when designing and planning work, using frameworks from disaster recovery planning through to checklists designed to avoid issues. These industries are well aware that disasters are usually caused by some combination of human error, dangerous working conditions, and faulty equipment.
The threat of a category one cyber-attack in these industries is that everything could seem right – the readings on the meter could be fine, checklists would be followed, and equipment would work as it’s supposed to – yet danger could still unfold. This was seen back in 2010 when the Stuxnet virus caused fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart. While this attack didn’t cost lives, it’s not improbable to imagine another attack that does have catastrophic consequences.
Serious cybercrime is around the corner
Ciaran Martin, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), outlines the stark reality of cybercrime today: “I remain in little doubt we will be tested to the full, as a centre, and as a nation, by a major incident at some point in the years ahead – what we would call a category one attack.”
A category one attack causes “sustained disruption of UK essential services or affects UK national security, leading to severe economic or social consequences or loss of life”. The UK government expects this type of attack to happen as cyber warfare and Internet-connected control systems increase in popularity, yet that expectation or threat is not limited to the UK. Almost every country has critical national infrastructure, many of which are based on similar hardware and software, so when vulnerabilities are identified and exploited, the impact could be felt anywhere.
How to prevent a category one attack
You’re not in a position to identify and patch every zero-day in your supply chain, so there are no guarantees. Likewise, a category one attack will most likely come from a nation-state attacker with time, money, and legal protection. Our recommendation is to mix board-level awareness with a systematic approach to defence in depth. These best practices allow you to make the right defensive decisions whilst mitigating the impact of an exploited vulnerability.
Step 1: Get the C-suite and board to buy into this threat
We’re in a time when security is top-of-mind at the highest level and you should work hard to ensure senior leaders fundamentally believe that they don’t want to be the company that experiences a category one. Every senior security leader and chief I speak to repeats the importance of governance in business operations. Your job is to convince them that this isn’t a scenario where ‘risk acceptance’ is acceptable. Once you get them on board, you’re able to take the next step.
Step 2: Assess and interpret threat intelligence
Once your leadership is on board, you must assess what you have and what could be vulnerable to a category one, and then seek threat intelligence on those assets. When working with customers, our first step in any job is to try and understand what exists, what could be vulnerable, and then act upon that knowledge.
If you have the senior approval, then take the time to assess your situation and invest in threat intelligence against the systems you have. When new vulnerabilities are disclosed or when other industrial control systems (ICS) are attacked, even if it’s in the academic research versus in the wild, you should have a mechanism to know that and start paying attention to your systems.
Step 3: Continuous visibility
Knowing what is happening in your ICS is vital for identifying and stopping an attack. The marketplace and talent for asset and traffic visibility is growing rapidly, so finding help shouldn’t be hard, but making the decision to capture and analyse traffic to your ICS is essential.
Step 4: Mitigate damage
Finally, once you know what could be vulnerable and have intelligence and monitoring established, you’ll want war game and table-top scenarios to see what fallout could occur. Running these exercises will give you a sense of the damage that could be caused. This then leads to disaster recovery updates, new processes and procedures, and maybe new mitigation technology so breakdowns don’t cascade into category one experiences.