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SCADA Security in the 21st Century

Every day Australia’s mining sector is under attack from cyber criminals both foreign and domestic, doing their utmost to gain any information on new contracts, mining operations and site specifics that can be used, or sold to the highest bidder.

According to Symantec, more than 43 percent the world’s mining and oil companies were hacked or underwent some sort of cyber-attack in the past year. Furthermore, as attacks increase so does the level of new technology and as more mining companies begin to upgrade their networks and SCADA systems, they unwittingly give rise to new vulnerabilities.  

SCADA systems have come a long way from analogue data and proprietary systems, to open systems with mix-and-match capabilities, Human Machine Interfaces (MHI), and even WIFI capabilities. These and many more features are allowing companies to gain more functionality and flexibility in regulating and managing operations.

But at what cost?

One of the main obstacles in the industry at present is the fact that many companies do not realise the significance of SCADA security and how the wrong people gaining accessing to their systems can have far reaching effects.

SCADA 2.0

To many companies, bringing SCADA systems online may seem like a tantalising option, as the benefits appear to outweigh the risks. Integrated systems can help streamline processes, create better and faster communication, and add an overall boost to productivity. However, SCADA systems and any surrounding networks that have access to the internet ultimately become sitting ducks for both ‘hacktivists’ and cyber criminals alike. Attacks on SCADA systems vary in employed techniques and subsequent complexity. As SCADA systems become smarter and more connected, they also become susceptible to the same cyber-attack methods that servers, FTPs and emails are subject to. These range from DoS attacks, buffer overflows, malware, and even simple human error made during the programming phase and resulting in vulnerable code.

According to a recent study conducted by Cybernetic Global Intelligence and NII Consulting, despite the importance of SCADA systems, many were protected by little more than generic passwords, often which were freely distributed to staff, as well as being accessible via public networks.

NII also discovered that SCADA systems were unpatched and generally unhardened by extra security, in addition to being left with their pre-set default configuration settings. Even cyber criminals with little knowledge of SCADA protocols can gain access to these poorly protected SCADA systems. 

The findings are more worrying due to the fact that the mining industry, similar to that of the manufacturing industry and national infrastructure, such as power grids and water plants, are unique in the scope of damage a cyber attack can have. Once cybercriminals have access they can exploit servers to release incorrect information to overload systems, which in the past has led to not only damaged equipment, but even loss of life. Moreover, an attack does not have to affect a large portion of the network.

Unlike other industries that can keep soldiering on with offline equipment, taking out so much as the load or pressure monitors can halt mining operations until the issue has been resolved.

Getting the Right Protection

Cyber criminals are not the only ones advancing in the cyber race, and IT Security agencies are now at the forefront of what often seems like an online chess match. There are a number of ways mining companies can mitigate the risk of bringing SCADA systems online, or even protect existing networks.

A popular cyber security service, that many companies undertake to secure their systems, is Penetration Testing. To root out any exploitable vulnerabilities, this service involves professional IT experts ‘breaching’ a company’s system by mimicking the techniques and methods employed by real hackers. This thorough investigation of the SCADA system and any surrounding devices that can be used as virtual ‘back-doors’ by hackers, gives companies the ability to reduce the risk of a successful breach and improves the safety of the whole facility.

Another popular service is Managed Security Services. A comprehensive network surveillance service that provides around the clock, continuous live monitoring, conducted by teams of certified IT security experts.  Managed Security Services includes monitoring of networks for any discrepancies and unauthorised activity, ready to deny access and patch systems before the attackers can gain entry.

An Overlooked Competitive Advantage

The benefits of good cyber security do not only include a more secure working environment and peace of mind, but also competitive advantage.

A mining company that can guarantee the safety of its operations, projects and employees will always be a step ahead of the completion. Therefore, mining companies beginning to invest more into their SCADA systems and other digital infrastructure as a whole, should do so with security always in mind and never compromise it for the sake of convenience. 

 

Original article can be found on Mining Australia (31 July 2015)