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Cyberattacks on Operational Technology are a Growing Threat

November 02, 2023

OT is at a high risk of cybersecurity trouble

In today’s interconnected world, technology plays a pivotal role in nearly every aspect of our daily lives. From the smartphones we use to the cars we drive, our reliance on operational technology (OT) is increasing. OT is also what powers critical sectors like utilities, manufacturing and defense. However, with the world’s continually increasing reliance on OT comes a growing threat: cyberattacks on OT systems. 

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It’s essential to understand what operational technology is and why it’s so crucial to our daily lives. Operational technology refers to the hardware and software used to monitor and control physical devices, processes and infrastructure. This technology is everywhere, from power grids and water treatment plants to transportation systems and manufacturing facilities. It ensures that the essential services we depend on run smoothly and efficiently. However, in recent years, the vulnerability of these OT systems to cyberattacks has become a significant concern.

According to IBM, cyberattacks that led to physical consequences like the shutdown of monitoring systems or factories in process manufacturing, discrete manufacturing and critical industrial infrastructures impacted over 150 industrial operations in 2022. In addition, the total number of attacks increased 2.4x over the previous year. At this rate of growth, cyberattacks may shut down up to 15,000 industrial sites within the next five years.

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Understanding the threat 

Cyberattacks on OT are very dangerous. In 2022, researchers recorded a 140% surge in cyberattacks against industrial operations, and experts predict that it will only get worse, with cyberattacks shutting down 15,000 industrial sites in 2027.

  • Motivations for attackers: Cyberattacks on operational technology can be launched for various reasons, including financial gain, industrial espionage and even cyber warfare. Hackers may seek to disrupt essential services, steal sensitive information or cause physical damage. 
  • Methods of attack: Attackers use various methods to infiltrate and compromise OT systems. This can include phishing emails, exploiting software vulnerabilities or deploying malware. Once inside, they can manipulate or damage the systems, causing disruptions or failures. 
  • Consequences: The consequences of cyberattacks on OT can be severe. They can result in power outages, water contamination, transportation disruptions and even life-threatening situations. These attacks can also lead to economic losses and environmental damage. 

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Real-life examples of attacks on OT 

To illustrate the potential impact of cyberattacks on OT systems, here are a few real-life examples: 

  • Ukraine power grid attack (2015): In December 2015, a cyberattack on Ukraine’s power grid left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity. Attackers used malware to manipulate OT systems, causing widespread outages in the middle of winter. 
  • Stuxnet (2010): Stuxnet is a famous computer worm that targeted Iran’s nuclear program. It specifically aimed at disrupting the centrifuges used in uranium enrichment, highlighting the potential for cyberattacks to interfere with critical infrastructure. 
  • Colonial Pipeline attack (2021): A cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline, a major fuel distributor in the United States, disrupted fuel supply along the East Coast. This incident highlighted the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to cyber threats. 

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Protecting OT systems 

With the growing threat of cyberattacks on OT systems, it’s essential to take steps to protect them.

  • Regular updates: Keep OT systems updated with the latest security patches and software updates. This helps fix known vulnerabilities. 
  • Access control: Restrict access to OT systems to authorized personnel only. Implement strong authentication measures and limit user privileges. 
  • Firewalls and intrusion detection: Use firewalls to filter network traffic and intrusion detection systems to identify and respond to suspicious activity. 
  • Employee training: Provide training to employees to recognize and respond to cybersecurity threats, including phishing attacks
  • Back up systems: Regularly back up critical data and systems to ensure quick recovery in case of a cyberattack. 
  • Collaboration: Work with cybersecurity experts and governmental agencies to share information and best practices. 

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The future of cybersecurity for OT

Governments and industries worldwide are increasingly recognizing the importance of protecting OT systems. Regulations and standards are being developed to address this threat. For instance, in the United States, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) collaborates with critical infrastructure sectors to enhance cybersecurity. In the European Union, the NIS Directive focuses on enhancing the security of essential services, including energy and transportation. 

As our world becomes more interconnected and dependent on technology, the threat of cyberattacks on operational technology is likely to grow. Cybersecurity experts, government agencies and industry leaders must continue to work together to stay ahead of cyber threats and protect our critical infrastructure. The key takeaway is that OT systems play a vital role in our daily lives, and their security is a collective responsibility. By understanding the basics of the threat and implementing protective measures, we can help ensure that our essential services remain safe and reliable in an increasingly digital world. 

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Mitigate cyber risk with the right solutions

The solutions Kaseya offers in its Security Suite help IT professionals keep networks and data safe easily and affordably.

Datto EDR — Detect and respond to advanced threats with built-in continuous endpoint monitoring and behavioral analysis to deliver comprehensive endpoint defense (something that many cyber insurance companies require).    

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Ransomware Rollback is a unique and powerful antimalware technology that identifies known and unknown types of ransomware and kills the encryption process once an attack begins. It is a lightweight software that tracks changes on endpoint disk space, providing rollback functionality for files and databases impacted by ransomware attacks. The feature is architected to restore deleted files, such as those hit by a wiper attack or files deleted by accident. It truly is the best defense against ransomware attacks and your best shot at warding off cybercriminals. 

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BullPhish ID — This effective, automated security awareness training and phishing simulation solution provides critical training that improves compliance, prevents employee mistakes and reduces a company’s risk of being hit by a cyberattack.    

Dark Web ID — Our award-winning dark web monitoring solution is the channel leader for a good reason. It provides the greatest amount of protection around with 24/7/365 human and machine-powered monitoring of business and personal credentials, including domains, IP addresses and email addresses.   

Graphus — Automated email security is a cutting-edge solution that puts three layers of AI-powered protection between employees and phishing messages. It works equally well as a standalone email security solution or supercharges your Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace email security.     

Kaseya Managed SOC powered by RocketCyber — Our managed cybersecurity detection and response solution is backed by a world-class security operations center that detects malicious and suspicious activity across three critical attack vectors: endpoint, network and cloud.     

Vonahi Penetration Testing – How sturdy are your cyber defenses? Do you have dangerous vulnerabilities? Find out with vPenTest, a SaaS platform that makes getting the best network penetration test easy and affordable for internal IT teams. 

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