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Blog / 10 min read

Ultimate Guide to Industrial Control Systems (ICS) Cybersecurity

The Claroty Team
/ April 16th, 2023

Like many other cybersecurity topics we’ve covered here at Claroty, the term “industrial control systems'' (ICS) can at times prove difficult to define. Today, we’re here to break down the meaning of industrial control systems and provide you with the tools you need to protect your critical ICS from cyberattacks. With the right cybersecurity strategy, your organization can paint a clearer picture of the risks associated with ICS and can quickly and efficiently protect against and remediate those risks. 

What is an Industrial Control System?

Industrial control systems can be defined as a collection of hardware and software systems, networks, and controls that are designed to monitor, control, operate, and/or automate industrial processes. These systems are present in various different critical infrastructure industries including chemical, electric, oil & gas, manufacturing, transportation and more. ICS are typically made up of a variety of components such as sensors, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interfaces (HMIs), and communication networks. These components work together to monitor and control various operational technology (OT) systems, such as temperature, pressure, flow rate, and other variables. 

Industrial control systems are considered to be critical in industrial operations due to the fact that their operations are often used to ensure safety and efficiency. ICS are used to monitor and control several safety-critical systems including emergency shutdown systems, fire detection and suppression systems, and toxic gas detection systems. These systems are designed to protect workers and equipment from hazards that may arise during industrial processes, and, if not properly protected from cyberattacks, can result in fatal catastrophes. 

What is the Difference Between ICS and OT?

Now that we know the definition of industrial control systems, it is important to understand how they both relate to and differ from operational technology (OT). Although the terms are at times used interchangeably, ICS is a major subset within the OT sector and comprises systems used to monitor and control industrial processes. These systems typically use specialized protocols and hardware designed specifically for industrial environments. OT on the other hand is a much larger umbrella term that encompasses all of the hardware and software used to manage and control industrial processes, including ICS. Outside of ICS, OT includes things like supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, distributed control systems (DCS), and other technologies that are used to manage and monitor industrial processes. These are typically designed to be reliable, secure, and resilient, and often require specialized expertise to implement and maintain. Essentially, all ICS can be categorized as a form of OT, but not all OT can be considered ICS. 

What are Examples of Industrial Control Systems?

The most common type of industrial control systems are supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. This system of software and hardware elements provides control at the supervisory level. It allows industrial organizations to control processes locally or at remote locations, monitor, gather, and process real-time data, interact with devices such as sensors, valves, pumps, motors, and more through human-machine interface (HMI) software, and record events into log files. SCADA systems are primarily used for long distance monitoring and control of field sites through centralized control systems. They are commonly found in industries such as pipeline monitoring and control, water treatment centers and distribution, and electrical power transmission and distribution. These systems allow the workers in said industries to automate day-to-day tasks — giving them the ability to monitor and control field sites without having to travel long distances. There are several advantages to SCADA systems such as cost reduction, flexibility, and performance efficiency; however, the threats against these systems have risen greatly in recent years due to increased remote access and internet connectivity. In extreme cases, hacks to these systems can result in an adversary gaining the ability to control the water supply system of a city, shut down electricity, or cause malfunctions in nuclear reactors. These examples emphasize why securing ICS has become so critical.    

Building management systems (BMS) are another common example of ICS. BMS are computer-based control systems that are used to monitor and regulate various aspects of building systems. The goal of building management systems is to guarantee the safety of facility operations and to optimize performance and reduce energy consumption of these systems. Examples of BMS include HVAC systems, lighting systems, energy management systems, security systems, fire and life safety systems, and elevator and escalator systems. This form of ICS is designed to improve overall operational efficiency, the comfort of building occupants (which many times includes patients in healthcare delivery organizations (HDOs)), and safety — while reducing operating costs and environmental impact. Much like SCADA systems, cyberattacks to BMS can result in a wide variety of issues ranging in severity. Attacks can lead to a shutdown of or tampering with critical manufacturing processes, theft of valuable enterprise data, or even go as far as a compromise of the safety of patients in a hospital. These two examples only scratch the surface of the different types of ICS used in various industries. But, they all have one thing in common, the need to be protected against the inherent challenges they face with a comprehensive ICS security strategy. 

What are the Challenges of Securing ICS?

Industrial control systems suffer from five major challenges that leave them vulnerable to cyberattacks:

1. IT/OT convergence:

A great challenge faced by industrial control systems is the convergence of IT and OT.  Historically, IT and OT systems have been managed separately, with different teams responsible for each area. As technology advances and organizations become more reliant on interconnected systems, there has been a growth towards convergence of these two areas. Although IT/OT convergence provides organizations with greater integration and visibility of their supply chain, this interconnectivity also increases the attack surface and allows hackers to more easily exploit vulnerabilities. Additionally, the OT infrastructure in many organizations is poorly protected against cyber attacks. This is due to the fact that traditional IT security tools can’t be used to protect OT environments as they have the potential to interfere with critical processes which may lead to loss of production or, even worse, safety issues.

2. Legacy systems:

Another major issue ICS faces is the abundance of legacy systems in industrial environments. Many industrial control systems were built decades ago, without security in mind, and many times lack the necessary features, like encryption and authentication, to protect them against cyberattacks. 

3. Remote access:

Many industrial control systems lack sufficient access control which make it easier for cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access to critical systems. They also face the issue of internal and third-party users who require remote access of industrial assets for maintenance or other purposes. Third-party users can be especially difficult to support because they typically cannot share jump servers or other infrastructure, which can be costly and complex for administrators. Without secure remote access, organizations have poor visibility and lack of control into the operations being carried out in their environments, which ultimately impacts uptime and safety. Lack of a centralized monitoring system will also limit their ability to detect and respond to cyber incidents. 

4. Patching:

Many industrial environments have no tolerance for downtime, making maintenance windows a rarity. This leaves systems especially vulnerable to risk, as they are exposed to known attacks that could have been prevented.

5. APT attacks:

Industrial control systems are often targeted by sophisticated cyberattacks, such as advanced persistent threats (APTs). APT actors have developed custom-made tools for targeting ICS and their attacks are designed to remain undetected for long periods of time which can cause significant damage to critical infrastructure. Without a strong ICS security strategy in place systems can be difficult to protect. 

How to Protect Your ICS

Now that we’ve addressed the major challenges faced by industrial control systems, it’s time to learn how to protect them. This starts with implementing an ICS security strategy that ensures the protection and integrity of your critical infrastructure — and, teaming up with the right cyber-physical systems (CPS) security vendor to help. As the extended internet of things (XIoT) continues to grow and systems become further interconnected, security blindspots that pose risks to availability, integrity, and safety are created. The first step to reduce risk and to boost cyber resilience in your connected ICS environments is asset discovery. You can’t protect what you can’t see — which is why asset discovery is the foundation of any good ICS security strategy. A CPS security vendor, like Claroty, can help your organizations gain a comprehensive and fully automated asset inventory, giving you in-depth asset visibility your way. This granular visibility is key in identifying the diverse mix of new and legacy devices in ICS environments, and in recognizing the proprietary protocols used by OT, BMS, and other industrial assets that are invisible to generalized security tools. 

Once comprehensive, enterprise-wide visibility is established, another key barrier to cyber resilience can be addressed. This barrier is the vulnerabilities present in industrial control systems. Claroty can help your critical infrastructure organization banish this barrier with exposure management capabilities that automatically correlate your critical assets with vulnerability and risk information. We can then prioritize remediation efforts based on how critical the risk is to your operations and impact to safety. As we know, patching in ICS environments is rarely permitted, that's why Claroty drives actions to enhance your risk posture by identifying and implementing the right compensating controls. We also safely eliminate blindspots with integrations to ensure that your organization is protected from even the most advanced attacks.

Once the identification of vulnerabilities and remediation of risks takes place, Claroty can then help sustain cyber resilience with effective network protection. Beginning a segmentation program for your unique environment can prove difficult when determining which policies to define and how, as well as which technologies to use to enforce those policies. Claroty solves this challenge by using our domain expertise to recommend segmentation policies that can easily and automatically be enforced via existing infrastructure to protect your environment. By enforcing granular access controls for remote internal and third-party users, we can help your organization ensure secure remote access.

The final step in ensuring cyber resilience is threat detection. Claroty offers purpose-built monitoring that can detect all manner of threats impacting industrial environments. Through the rise of interconnectivity and advancement of digital transformation, we’ve seen that cyberattacks are increasing in frequency and sophistication. Our platform solves this challenge by easily identifying and remediating attack vectors with a clear indication of potentially threatening activity in your environment. By alerting on potential malicious activity, we can define and enforce policies to prevent future violations — even those committed by APT actors. We also possess the capability to streamline threat alerting and minimize false positives. The inherent complexity of new and legacy devices, systems, and processes in industrial environments makes threat monitoring uniquely prone to false positives. With Claroty, you can automatically weed out these false positives, and consolidate all interrelated events into one single alert.

Empowering the Right Cybersecurity Strategy

Guarding your industrial control systems from cyberattacks is no easy feat. The implementation of a successful ICS security framework is even more dire due to the fact that these cyberattacks not only have financial repercussions but can have detrimental impact on human health and safety. As hackers increasingly take advantage of the fundamental challenges faced by industrial organizations, it is more important than ever to gain a full picture of the critical assets in your environment. From there, your team can use this strong foundation to implement successful strategies around vulnerability and risk management, network protection, and threat detection. By teaming up with the right CPS security vendor, you can empower your industrial cybersecurity strategy and ensure cyber and operational resilience. 

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