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How can SCADA security be improved for oil and gas companies?

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

According to the recently released 2015 Dell Security Annual Threat Report, SCADA attacks are on the rise. The report found that in 2014 the number of attacks on Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems doubled compared to the previous year. Most of these attacks occurred in Finland, the UK, and the US, probably due to the fact that in these countries SCADA systems are more likely to be connected to the internet. The Dell Report came on the heels of findings from the US Industrial Controls Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) showing that energy was the most targeted sector for attack among all critical infrastructure providers.

"Since companies are only required to report data breaches that involve personal or payment information, SCADA attacks often go unreported," said Patrick Sweeney, Executive Director of Dell Security. "This lack of information sharing combined with an aging industrial machinery infrastructure presents huge security challenges that will continue to grow in the coming months and years."

This does not come as a surprise to those in hydrocarbons. Many SCADA and industrial control systems (ICS) were built decades ago when cyber security was not yet an issue for the industry. There has been an inevitable collision as operational technology (OT) systems like SCADA come into closer contact with IT management modalities, introducing risks as systems not designed for outside connectivity are exposed to the internet.

In addition to their importance for hydrocarbons, SCADA systems control key functions for other critical infrastructure providers, such as utilities, airports and nuclear plants. Successful attacks on SCADA systems could potentially cause disruptions in services that we all depend on every day. For this reason, SCADA attacks are often politically motivated and backed by foreign state actors with motives such as industrial espionage and major supply chain disruption.

As attacks become more sophisticated and digital control systems increase in complexity, automation, and connectivity with outside networks, it is increasingly difficult to prevent threats from impacting upstream, midstream and downstream oil and gas operations. To add cyber security defenses to these systems is a major task, coupled with the fact that due to their critical nature, downtime for system upgrades is virtually impossible.

How to improve SCADA security

Given these challenges, what can be done to improve the security of oil and gas companies? Here are five ways to improve SCADA security:

  • Air gap systems: Since many SCADA systems do not include robust cyber security controls, it is important to physically separate these systems from the internet and corporate network. If the systems are connected to the network, strong firewalls, intrusion detection systems and other security measures must be put in place to protect against unauthorised intrusion.
  • Avoid default configurations: Avoid using default configurations on network and security appliances. Factory passwords must be changed immediately and a system of strong passwords and regular password updating should be enforced.
  • Apply USB and portable device security: Since air gapped systems are not connected to the network, often the only way to bring files in and out of the SCADA system is by using portable media such as USB drives or DVDs. As portable media devices are key attack vectors for air gapped networks, it is very important to deploy a portable media security system that thoroughly scans portable devices for any threats before they are allowed to connect to the secure SCADA network.
  • Defend against advanced persistent threats (APT): Attacks are becoming more and more sophisticated, with malware lying in wait undetected for a long period of time. It is important to fight APT’s at different levels; not only trying to prevent APT’s entering the network, but also detecting APT’s that have already gained entry. An effective way to detect APT’s is to use a multi anti malware scanner that will scan files with multiple anti virus engines using a combination of signatures and heuristics and will therefore be able to detect more threats. In addition, technologies such as data sanitisation can prevent zero day and targeted attacks that may be missed by anti malware engines by converting files to different formats and removing any possible embedded threats and scripts. Devices should be continually monitored for any abnormal activity and files on the network should be continually scanned with multiple anti-virus engines; a threat that was previously not detected could be found by an updated signature database. This step is especially important in instances where factory acceptance tests limit an operator’s ability to apply software and operating system patches in a timely fashion.
  • Perform penetration testing: Regular penetration testing and vulnerability assessments, if possible conducted by a third party, are very helpful to get realistic input on the current security level and shed light on which areas still need additional security precautions.

The above measures, along with employee awareness training and continuous evaluation, will significantly boost the security of critical infrastructure systems.

Additional resources

  • Ernst and Young Report: Oil and gas cybersecurity: Penetration testing techniques.
  • OPSWAT Webinar: How to Use Metadefender to Secure ICS and SCADA Environments.
  • ICS-CERT Monitor: Incident Response/Vulnerability Coordination in 2014.
  • Dell: 2015 Dell Security Annual Report.

Written by Deborah Galea, Manager, OPSWAT.

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