Enhancing Cybersecurity in Industrial Applications

Automation systems are crucial elements of industrial sectors such as manufacturing, energy, and transport, responsible for monitoring and controlling industrial processes. However, as these systems integrate with corporate IT networks and the internet for remote monitoring and control, they offer potential entry points for cyberattacks.

Unfortunately, many industrial facilities today use outdated software, often lacking the latest security features to prevent unauthorized access. Moreover, the lack of strong encryption and authentication protocols for communications within industrial control systems has opened new pathways for eavesdropping and data manipulation. Potential implications of these network and data security challenges range from downtime to financial losses and threats to human safety.

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Automation systems are the future of the modern industrial environment. Image credit: Shutterstock

Understanding the Current Industrial Security Landscape

Organizations worldwide, including manufacturing plants, are susceptible to cyberattacks that use ransomware to manipulate critical data, rendering systems inoperable. In May 2021, a cyber assault using ransomware targeted the U.S. petroleum industry. The attack led to a major disruption when Colonial Pipeline, a key fuel provider, was forced to cease operations across its network. The shutdown impacted the entire fuel supply for the U.S. East Coast.

Also in 2021, the remote access intrusion into a water treatment facility in Oldsmar, Florida—a case of industrial espionage, which often involves manipulating control systems for malicious reasons that put industrial workers or the public at risk. This incident was especially alarming as the only line of defense was a diligent operator who noticed the cursor moving on the facility’s control system.

In this attack, an unauthorized individual manipulated the concentration of sodium hydroxide, commonly known as lye, in the water system, elevating it to 100 times above the standard. Lye, a key component in commercial drain cleaning solutions, is typically utilized in water treatment facilities to regulate the pH level and extract metallic substances from potable water. Exposure to high levels can cause serious health issues, including skin burns, intense pain, vomiting, and internal bleeding. Once the hacker departed the system, the operator swiftly restored the lye concentration to its regular level and promptly reported the incident to his supervisor. The lack of anomaly detection or intrusion technologies in place highlights the vulnerabilities of such critical infrastructure today.

Similarly, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks can overload networked control systems, leading to operational downtime or shutdowns. Based on findings from a Kaspersky Lab research in 2017, the typical expense for organizations suffering from a DDoS attack was estimated at approximately $2 million. With the progression of time and how sophisticated these attacks have become, it’s reasonable to assume that the current financial impact is significantly greater.

Moreover, the impacts of such attacks extend beyond financial losses. Other consequences, like the erosion of a company’s brand credibility and the diminishing trust from clients and customers, are equally, if not more, detrimental.

Considerations for Securing Industrial Facilities

Securing industrial automation systems is a complex effort requiring a balance between security, operational efficiency, and flexibility. This balance is crucial to ensure that while the system is protected against threats, it remains efficient and adaptable to evolving industrial requirements. Below is a look at key aspects — network security, data encryption, and device authentication.

Network Security

Industrial systems often operate on a mix of proprietary and standard communication protocols, and securing these diverse protocols is vital for robust network security. Implementing advanced security protocols like TLS and SSL is crucial to ensure secure data communication across the network. Moreover, deploying sophisticated firewall and intrusion detection systems can monitor and control incoming and outgoing network traffic based on the applied security policy, thereby preventing unauthorized access and potential breaches. However, implementing these network security measures must not impede the system’s performance. Network configurations must be optimized to minimize latency and maximize throughput, thus maintaining operational efficiency.

Data Encryption

In industrial facilities, protecting sensitive data both in transit and at rest is an essential aspect of cybersecurity. Encrypting industrial process data ensures confidentiality and integrity, protecting it against interception, tampering, or unauthorized access. For instance, encrypting the data that controls or monitors flow processes at a hydrocarbon plant prevents attackers from manipulating them or stealing intellectual property.

Furthermore, it is critical to implement encryption methods that are robust yet resource-efficient. Choosing algorithms or encryption techniques that provide the required level of security without overburdening the system can ensure that these processes are not slowed down by the encryption and decryption processes.

Device Authentication

In industrial facilities, ensuring that only authorized devices and users can access the network and control systems involves robust authentication mechanisms like digital certificates, biometric verification, etc. Device authentication creates a secure environment by verifying the identity of devices and users before granting access to the network or control systems.

The challenge lies in designing an authentication process that is both secure and user-friendly, allowing quick and easy access for authorized personnel while effectively blocking unauthorized entities.

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Robotic systems in an assembly plant. Image credit: Shutterstock

Alif Semiconductor’s Ensemble MCUs Secure Industrial Application

Given the complexity of industrial automation systems, a holistic security approach will have the most impact. This approach encompasses multiple layers of security, including network security, data encryption, and constant monitoring and maintenance.

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Recognizing the dynamic, evolving nature of industrial security threats, Alif Semiconductor has designed its Ensemble MCUs from the ground up with a focus on lifecycle management. This includes secure provisioning, regular updates, and end-of-life management, ensuring that the MCUs remain secure throughout their operational life. Please reference the Alif Semiconductor Security Whitepaper for a deep dive into available security offerings.


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