Cyber Threats to Critical Infrastructure:

Government Intervention

Actions by the U.S. federal government highlight the escalating threat of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and private industry. Hear more in one of our recent podcasts.

In an unprecedented move, federal agencies earlier this year, began actively intervening to remove malware and other cyber threats from private networks, even obtaining court orders to do so in some cases.

This shift in tactics underscores the severity of the situation and the potential for widespread disruption.

The federal government is now obtaining legal warrants to breach private industry networks in pursuit of malware and other attacks deployed by foreign actors.

The Chinese Communist Party has been identified as a primary culprit in many of these intrusions. This proactive approach represents a significant change from previous practices of monitoring and advising.

Now, agencies are taking direct action when they detect serious threats, even if it means disrupting business operations in the process.

The targets of these attacks extend far beyond traditional military or government systems. Critical infrastructure like power grids, water treatment facilities, transportation networks, and key industrial supply chains are all at risk.

Even smaller businesses and those not directly involved in critical sectors may find themselves vulnerable to collateral damage or as stepping stones for attackers to reach higher-value targets.

A key challenge is that many organizations lack the sophisticated cybersecurity capabilities needed to detect and respond to advanced threats. This gap in security readiness leaves critical systems exposed and necessitates government intervention in extreme cases.

Several factors contribute to this vulnerability:

1. Lack of visibility into operational technology (OT)environments: Unlike IT networks, many industrial control systems and operational technologies lack comprehensive logging and monitoring capabilities. This creates blind spots where malicious activity can go undetected.

2. Insecure remote access: Plant floor systems often have multiple remote access points for vendors and maintenance, but these connections are frequently poorly secured and documented. This creates easy entry points for attackers.

3. Outdated and unpatched systems: Many industrial environments run legacy systems that cannot be easily updated or patched, leaving known vulnerabilities exposed.

4. Disconnect between IT and OT security: There is often a lack of coordination between traditional IT security teams and those responsible for operational technology, leading to gaps in protection.

5. Supply chain risks: Global supply chains and reliance on third-party vendors introduce additional vulnerabilities that are difficult to control.

These threats are not theoretical. Industrial and critical infrastructure organizations face constant probing and attacks from various threat actors. The situation has been likened to having rockets fired at businesses every day from a cyber perspective.

To address these challenges, organizations should consider several key steps:

  1. Conduct thorough asset inventory and visibility assessments, especially for OT environments.
  2. Implement proper remote access controls and monitoring.
  3. Develop incident response plans that account for both IT and OT operations.
  4. Improve coordination between IT and OT security teams.
  5. Assess and mitigate supply chain cybersecurity risks.
  6. Stay current with patches and updates where possible and implement compensating controls for legacy systems.
  7. Educate executives and board members on OT cybersecurity risks and necessary investments.

Cybersecurity insurance is not a sufficient strategy on its own, as policies may not cover all types of incidents and damages. Instead, organizations need to take a proactive approach to hardening their defenses.

As nation-state cyber activities and criminal threats continue to evolve, the line between peacetime and conflict in cyberspace becomes increasingly blurred.

This "gray zone" creates new challenges for defenders and policy makers alike. We are entering a new phase of cyber conflict with potentially far-reaching consequences.

Organizations of all types must recognize the growing cyber threat to operational technology and take concrete steps to improve their security posture.

With potential disruptions to critical services and significant financial losses at stake, cybersecurity can no longer be an after thought for industrial operators and critical infrastructure providers.

The federal government's recent actions serve as a wake-upcall to the industry. While agencies are intervening in the most severe cases, they lack the resources to protect every organization.

It's crucial for businesses to take responsibility for their own cybersecurity, particularly in areas that have traditionally been overlooked, such as industrial control systems and building management systems.

Even organizations that don't consider themselves part of critical infrastructure should reassess their risk profile. They may be part of crucial supply chains or could become collateral damage in larger attacks.

As cyber weapons and tactics developed by state actors trickle down to criminal groups, the threat landscape becomes increasingly complex and dangerous for all.

Ultimately, the message is clear: organizations must proactively identify and address their cybersecurity weaknesses, especially in operational technology environments.

Failing to do so not only puts individual businesses at risk but could have far-reaching consequences for national security, economic stability, and even human life.

If you’re not sure where to start, please get in touch. We can assist with either a Tabletop Exercise with your IT and OT organization or an asset inventory for one of your facilities.

The Tabletop exercise allows us to simulate a cyber event and get the IT and OT teams talking. An asset inventory ensures that you fully understand what is connected to your industrial plant floor operation.

To ensure your cybersecurity investment is operationalized and to protect your organization, please get in touch.