Security Challenges in the IIoT
It is hardly necessary to explain or justify that security is a concern when we think of applying Internet of Things (IoT) technology to industrial applications, but it is useful to consider how it differs in this context from the consumer domain. In the consumer-oriented IoT, some of the main threats might be:
- Stealing personal information, such as credit card numbers
- Finding out when a house is unoccupied (e.g., by remotely observing the thermostat settings or the energy consumption) in order to plan a robbery
- Tracking delivery trucks in order to steal shipments left at the doors of unoccupied homes
- Tracking the movements of people (e.g., if they drive in a connected car) for kidnapping purposes — a problem endemic to certain developing countries
- Nuisance actions, such as setting all the thermostats in a neighborhood to the wrong temperature as a misguided joke or as a “badge of honor” for hackers
- Capturing a surveillance camera feed for intimidation, blackmail, or the like
Done on a small scale, these actions are petty crimes. Done on a large scale by an organized agent, in an area where there are many connected homes and cars, they could serve to create panic — a form of psychological attack for economic or ideological purposes.
In the industrial world, the risks are generally different and present immediate danger on a larger scale. Figure 1 is an oversimplified view of the components that an Industrial Internet system connects. (Note that the “actuator” part of a device is not always present. Many devices in an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) network — and sometimes all of them — are passive sensors.)
Figure 1 — An IIoT system, simplified.
Figure 2 — Possible intrusions into an IIoT system.
Figure 2, by contrast, adds to this diagram the various ways in which attacks can be performed on such a system. This diagram shows three forms of attack, against which most current systems are woefully unprotected:
- Eavesdropping. This is the least disruptive form of attack, because intercepting traffic between a device and a control system or an analytics application does not directly impact its function. Unfortunately, this also means that it is the type of intrusion that is the least likely to be detected. The goal of the listener will often be industrial spying, or it can be government-sponsored monitoring of economic activity. The goal may also be monetary. By monitoring the information that traverses the IIoT network, a third party may be able to predict certain fluctuations in commodity or stock prices and make money from knowing about impending events ahead of the market. Or it can monetize the information by selling it to an unscrupulous competitor. There is also the increasing occurrence of “ransomware”: the intruder accesses enough information to prove to the owner of the system that it contains serious vulnerabilities and then demands a large sum of money to cease the attack or provide remediation information.
- Device masquerading. Inserting a fake device into the network is actually fairly easy in most cases, because enrolling a device in the system is usually a very primitive process. Simply by virtue of physically connecting the device to the network, it can start receiving and sending data. Since sensing devices may be manufactured by the tens or hundreds of thousands, they are fairly easy to procure from legitimate manufacturers. This form of intrusion can result in several distinct (and non-exclusive) consequences:
- The fake sensor can inject false data into the network to cause erroneous reactions or interpretations. These may include false alarms (i.e., sending data that appears to indicate a malfunction when there is none, which may trigger a disruptive shutdown), or data that skews the analysis of what is going on in the physical world (e.g., reporting higher or lower values of a key measurement) so that the control system sends commands that affect production or create dangerous conditions.
- A fake device that includes an active component can receive information and intentionally perform actions that are not what is necessary under the circumstances, such as increasing the speed of a motor instead of decreasing it, turning a monitoring light green when it was supposed to be red, and so on.
- A “denial of service” attack can be performed by a fake device to overwhelm the network with messages, preventing normal operations. At that point, if the industrial system’s design is fail-safe, it may shut down safely, but if not, the consequence can be an accident.
- Server masquerading. Especially when the IIoT network uses the cloud rather than a private network to connect devices to servers, it is possible to insert a fake server into the network. As long as that machine is able to discover the addresses of the devices on the network and “speaks” the same communication protocol as the devices, it could send them requests or commands. IIoT networks are not well protected against this form of attack because the devices rarely have the logic (or the hardware and software capability) to authenticate the servers that are talking to them. Most devices will simply respond to well-formed requests or commands without verifying that the originating machine is legitimate (IP addresses can be spoofed). With this form of attack, it is even easier to cause sensors to send their data to an unauthorized recipient or cause active devices to shut down a machine or a valve — or reopen it in a destructive manner after a legitimate command has closed it.
At this point, readers may wonder why companies that deploy such capabilities do not simply isolate them from the Internet to make sure that attacks cannot be performed remotely. There are a few reasons why the remedy is not that simple:
- We live in an increasingly connected and global world. Remote operations monitoring often leads to a control room being thousands of miles away from the location of the equipment it monitors. Engineering an international private network would be costly. In theory, one can implement a secure, encrypted virtual private network that piggybacks on the public Internet, but organizations may not have the awareness or the expertise to put in place the right solutions. Furthermore, there are inherent vulnerabilities in the Internet Protocol, which was not designed with the current level of threat in mind.
- Solutions that were initially designed to be accessed from within the firewall have often been extended to provide outside access. A manufacturing manager may want to see a dashboard of their factory’s operations on their smartphone after dinner or when they get up. As soon as legitimate access is provided to one device from the outside, a potential port of illegitimate entry has been opened.
- Even if the industrial network is isolated from the outside, malware can be brought in through other methods. The Stuxnet attack, described in the next section, is a good example.
When we consider the opportunities for cyberattacks in the industrial world, and the potential severity of their consequences, we are reminded of the famous dialogue between reporter Mitch Ohnstad and serial bank robber Willie Sutton: “Why did you rob the bank, Willie?” “Because that’s where the money is!”
[For more from the author on this topic, see "Security Challenges and Approaches in the Industrial Internet."]
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