Industrial companies are at high risk of a cyberattack

Having an industrial control security program in place is essential

May 31, 2024

Key takeaways

Much critical infrastructure runs on legacy systems that are more susceptible to cyberattacks.

Segmentation between IT and OT environments can help prevent attacker access to OT systems.

An OT/ICS security assessment can help companies understand how well they are protected.

Cybersecurity consulting Manufacturing Digital evolution Energy

Cybersecurity in industrial environments has always been a concern, but the current cyberthreat landscape is making it an even higher priority. According to RSM data, reported breaches over a recent one-year period matched a high seen only once before in nine years of data collection by the firm. The threat environment is more challenging now as generative AI and other new technologies increase risk, placing an enterprise emphasis on well-maintained protective strategies.

Twenty-eight percent of middle market executives surveyed in the Q1 RSM US Middle Market Business Index survey said their organizations experienced a data breach in the last year, rising from 20% in the 2023 survey and matching results from the 2021 RSM survey. Increases were seen across the board, as breaches at smaller middle market companies rose to 20% from 12% a year ago, and those at their larger counterparts were up to 37%, compared to 28%.  

Additionally, the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency in March 2024 proposed reporting requirements under the Cyber Incident Reporting for Critical Infrastructure Act. Organizations across critical infrastructure sectors would be required to report cyber incidents within days.

For industrial companies, weak cybersecurity endangers computer programs as well as factory systems and power plants. The outdated infrastructure of many manufacturers also makes them a target, and cyberattacks may hinder production and profitability.
Tauseef Ghazi, partner and national leader of security and privacy, RSM US LLP

Why is the industrial sector at such high risk of destructive cyberattacks?

For decades, our economies and daily lives have depended on operational technology (OT), such as industrial control systems (ICS) or supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, for necessities like bringing water, power and gas into our homes; transporting gasoline needed for vehicles; running public transit; and manufacturing consumer products like food, medicine and beverages.

OT was not designed for our digital world, and therefore, much of our critical infrastructure runs on legacy systems that are more susceptible to cyberattacks. Many of these systems don’t have the protective features and capabilities that we’ve come to expect from modern systems (e.g., antivirus software, security patches, passwords, etc.). Operational limitations historically kept such protections from being used. However, the need for real-time information when making business decisions and optimizing performance has required these systems to be connected to our business networks and the internet.

Cyberattacks on these systems now can affect the safety of workers and the public. As a result, our critical infrastructure must not only secure these systems against attacks, but also incorporate operational resilience for continued operations in the event of a successful cyberattack.

What is the potential fallout of a cyberattack affecting OT?

Considering the impact these OT/ICS/SCADA systems have on our daily lives, including many critical infrastructure processes, the availability of these systems, and any other applications they rely on, is essential. Security breaches in the IT environment can create a chain reaction that is harmful to our economy, infrastructure and daily lives.

Here are some possible consequences when OT/ICS/SCADA systems are affected by a cyberattack:

  • Loss of utilities: no water, energy or gas for homes, hospitals and military bases
  • Loss of communications: no cellphones or landlines, no first-responder communications
  • Transportation disruptions: insufficient fuel to supply cars, buses and planes; delays in or loss of automation-dependent public transit (e.g., subways, light rail)
  • Public safety concerns: explosions, contamination of air and water, civil unrest resulting from prolonged loss of utilities
  • Scarcity of consumer products: cleaning supplies, food, medicines, beverages, etc.

Safeguarding against cybersecurity incidents affecting operations

Not all companies need highly complex security programs, but any industrial environment should have an industrial control security program in place. When developing these programs, companies should consider basic elements to protect their systems, detect possible attacks, and respond and recover from an incident.

Reduce the risk of compromise by using or implementing strong security measures like:

  • Multifactor authentication (e.g., one-time PIN, hardware token) for remote access to IT and OT networks
  • Asset mapping to identify critical systems for operational processes to ensure those systems are properly secured
  • Continuous security assessments to evaluate the access and impact of an attacker on the network
  • Spam filtering to prevent phishing emails with malicious files and links from getting to users
  • Security training and phishing testing to support user awareness
  • System security updates to avoid compromises with known vulnerabilities
  • System hardening to disable unnecessary applications and services that attackers commonly use

Reduce the impact of an attack by:

  • Implementing network segmentation between IT and OT environments to prevent attacker access to OT systems, and to allow continued OT operations in case of IT environment compromise
  • Identifying system dependencies and testing manual workarounds to build resilience against technology-induced outages
  • Implementing monitoring and detection mechanisms to be alerted of malicious activity instantly
  • Backing up critical systems and data regularly, testing the backups, and keeping offline and off-site copies

How can RSM help?

RSM has a dedicated team of cybersecurity professionals specializing in OT/ICS/SCADA environments. Our practice leaders have experience in securing companies in the oil and gas, power and utilities, manufacturing, chemical/petrochemical, mining, and communications industries, among others.

We have helped our clients through assessing their current state, designing rightsized OT/ICS/SCADA security programs and architectures with an implementation road map, and implementing these programs and architectures with the technical, strategic and governance-related components.

For companies wondering whether something like this could happen to them and how well they are protected, we offer a rapid OT/ICS security assessment, which includes:

  • OT/ICS architecture evaluation
  • OT/ICS security process discussions
  • OT/ICS vulnerability scanning

Through this analysis, we can help you identify not just the current state of your OT/ICS security program, but ultimately your resilience level against typical attacks.

RSM contributors

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