The energy sector is one of the most vulnerable industries to cyber attacks. Because of the wide distribution networks and being a continuous service, energy sectors reasonably often fall prey to cyber-attacks. As important as managing cybersecurity risks are in the energy sector, protecting the equipment from harm is also important. Let’s understand the risks involved and how to manage energy sector risks effectively.
Legacy generation systems are designed in convergence with IT without operation technology (OT) cybersecurity in mind. As the cost of establishing an energy generation plan is comparatively higher, the priority of implementing an effective OT cybersecurity policy falls behind.
Disruption of services and DDoS attacks are most prevalent in energy generation plants. Cyber attackers strategically attack energy generation plants due to the economic value it possesses. Ransomware or DDoS attacks on an energy generation plant have more potential to succeed than a service-based IT company.
Digital and automated means of energy transmission have replaced traditional energy transmission grids in most cases. With the decreased manual intervention automation brings, it also increases the risk of remote disconnection of services. Large-scale service disruption through the vulnerabilities of OT cybersecurity policies is possible and prevalent.
Physical security weaknesses and lack of ample air gapping expose the energy transmission grids to remote access attacks and wide disruption of services. The remote access attacks often are paired with ransomware attacks to extract money from the governments or private agencies.
Customers are directly affected by OT cyberattacks on energy distribution systems. Not to the extent of transmission line disruption, but attacks on energy distribution lead to regional service loss or interruption. Such interruptions still cause energy companies to lose a significant amount of profit.
The cause for the vulnerabilities in distribution levels is mainly due to SCADA systems that aren’t designed with OT cybersecurity in mind. As the SCADA systems are built upon limited security, they often aren’t enough to stop attackers from exposing the system.
IoT Devices, smart home setups, and electric vehicles are mostly exposed to energy network attacks. The loss of personal information and safety are most prevalent, but monetary frauds and DoS attacks are also rampant.
Due to the large attack surface of the smart interconnected devices, the attackers can exploit the vulnerabilities of WI-Fi networks and even the smart home systems that aren’t particularly known for their OT cybersecurity features.
Insider threats are more dangerous in utility sectors than any other ones. A malicious actor can disrupt or even break down the whole energy generation and distribution system physically or through the means of cyberattacks. As the OT environments aren’t very secure to start with, a USB device with malware installed can be used to hack into the whole system and initiate attacks. Increasing the chances of it succeeding.
The cyber risks involved in the integration of OT and IT environments can be mitigated through strategically evolved technologies and policies that focus on securing digital and physical assets. Some ways organizations manage cyber risk in the energy sector are:
1. Security Awareness Training
Human factors are the most contributing cause of cyber attacks in 2022. The energy sector is no different. Apart from training your employees to detect and neutralize spam emails and phishing links, they should also be made aware of the physical vulnerabilities that are prevalent in utility sectors.
Developing training and certification regiments to periodically train and take tests have proven to be quite effective in IT sectors. The energy sector can also be benefited from the arrangements because of the convergence of OT and IT environments.
2. Employee Background Evaluation
Insider threats can be diminished to a great extent by evaluating employees before and throughout their period of employment. The employment evaluation strategy should include the work history, criminal records, driving records, medical records, and so forth.
It’s possible that some employee records aren’t to be found. But, a strict policy on background evaluation and implementation often gives an organization the opportunity to minimize OT cybersecurity risks before they are exposed.
3. Developing Incident Response Policy
Despite all measures, some unfortunate incidents will sneak through heightened OT cybersecurity. Having an incident response policy can help energy sectors take appropriate measures that don’t cause more damage by harming the sensitive machinery and transmission lines.
Energy sectors work with varying levels of voltage and power through the whole network from generation to distribution. The generated power often is limited to a few volts, which is then stepped up through transformers to achieve a voltage that’s 1000x more than the primary voltage. The same again stepped down the necessary voltage when supplying to the neighborhoods.
These wide ranges of operations require precise control and sensitivity. If an attack is to occur, shutting down the whole operation abruptly can cause more monetary losses than the attack itself. Incident response policies take care of that.
4. Access Control
Organizations restrict and log access to OT, industrial control system (ICS) environments, and other high-risk systems. Making sure that the control systems aren’t accessed by anyone for any reason other than absolutely necessary and restricting unauthorized access through phishing and vishing attacks are the key to preventing DDoS and MITM attacks.
Access control can be achieved by setting a password policy that is different from the default password set up by the systems and implementing a timeout ticket to the login sessions. As the employees in the energy sector typically aren’t as tech-savvy as in IT sectors, defining a clear access control and password policy can help minimize OT cybersecurity issues.
5. Triage Protocol
Before jumping into action once the bells ring with the sound of a breach and taking haphazard decisions that are jeopardizing the interests of the organization, assessing the situation through the event triage process is wiser.
The procedure follows a 3-step evaluation and mitigation procedure that starts with identifying the incident. Assessing the high-risk targets through network security monitoring and identifying the artifact where the breach occurred is the first step toward the triage.
The second phase is mapping. Once an OT cybersecurity attack has been completed. The mapping procedure compels the experts to extract the timeline of events and visualize the path the attacker followed. In this step, the experts are supposed to find out the vulnerabilities of the system that the attacker exploited.
The final stage is eradication. Once the vulnerability has been found, IT practices like patching and testing are employed to eradicate the vulnerability or malware.
6. Air Gapping High-Risk Processes
The energy sector is full of such systems that require special security attention. Air gapping is isolating a computer or a system from the external server to ensure that in case of a breach, the attackers can’t access the high-risk systems.
Physical air gapping of these systems has always been a mitigating practice for plants for decades. But with OT/IT convergence, in addition to physically isolating the systems, network air gapping has also become a necessary step towards OT cybersecurity.
But this technique of securing a system also makes it less accessible. For that, remote access or removable media access technologies can be implemented through physical security means to legitimately access such systems.
7. Redundancy Building
As redundant as it may sound, redundancy is a prominent IT cybersecurity approach that can be implemented in OT cybersecurity. Redundancy refers to building additional networks and communication modes that ensure availability and backup isolation in the event of an attack.
Some issues related to building redundancy are lack of physical space, lack of operating personnel, and lack of periodic maintenance. But with planning and proper scheduling, the issues can be mitigated to reach a more robust OT cybersecurity.
8. Security Compliance Reporting
Compliance acts are designed with taking the latest vulnerabilities into account. By enforcing periodic reporting of compliance, organizations stay ahead of the attackers. IT security compliance reporting ensures that the organization is patching the vulnerabilities that can jeopardize the whole operation; risking human safety and financial sustainability.
Being an automated distributed ledger, the fundamental technology of blockchain can be used to secure the OT and ICS environments by tracking the data transactions of the components. The encryption protocols of blockchain platforms also help keep social engineering attacks at bay.
It’s impossible for the energy sector to get back to the traditional manual approach to ensure security. That being said, it’s also not optimum to leave the sector as it is without doing anything to manage the increasing number of cyber risks. For that, legacy approaches like compliance reporting, employee awareness, and redundancy building are critical.
As for exclusive OT cybersecurity, air gapping systems and triage protocol can be employed. Latest technologies like blockchain are also being utilized to safeguard the energy sector from cyber attackers.