Attacks on Industrial Networks: Impacts & Incident Examples

Instructor: Erik Rodriguez

Erik has experience working in Cybersecurity and has a Master's of Science in Information Systems.

In this lesson, we will discuss how cyber attacks affect industrial networks. Additionally, we will review real-life incidents where cyber attacks have been launched against industrial networks, disrupting operations.

A Close Call

''Are you hurt?'', asks one of Greg's coworkers. ''No, I'm fine.'', he says with a sigh of relief. It had all happened so fast that Greg didn't know exactly what had happened. Greg was operating special equipment used in the manufacturing of steel when he accidentally lost his footing and fell off the machinery. Although it was a 2-foot drop and he didn't fall anywhere near an area that could result in him getting seriously injured, special sensors had detected that Greg was no longer at the controls and immediately shut down the large machinery. The sensors also alerted his supervisors and work for safety personnel, allowing for speedy assistance.

All of this was possible through the use of an industrial network. Unfortunately, cyber attacks aimed at industrial networks have the potential to not only disrupt operations but can also lead to humans becoming seriously hurt. Finding ways to create robust industrial networks and protect them from cyber attacks is one of the challenges facing network security analysts today.

Industrial Networks Defined

An industrial network is any network designed to handle vast amounts of data that is typically seen in large companies and can involve different types of equipment and devices, such as field devices, controllers, and computers. This is in contrast to traditional networks which simply allow data to travel between computers and other similar devices. Additionally, industrial networks facilitate in a company's automation systems architecture. This architecture allows companies to automate many of their businesses processes and, as such, requires a more robust network.

Effects of Cyber Attacks on Industrial Networks

Like all technology in use today, industrial networks are susceptible to cyber attacks. According to a recent study, nearly half of all sampled industrial networks showed evidence of an attempted hacking or other malicious activity. This is alarming due to the fact that industrial networks are usually designed to manage operations in the energy, chemical, and manufacturing industries. A successful cyber attack on an industrial network could cause production and regular operations to suffer, or prevent safety controls from operating properly, in addition to the normal concerns of a cyber attack such as data loss and theft.

Safety Controls

Ineffective safety controls due to a cyber attack are especially concerning because these controls are put in place to protect human lives. For example, suppose a chemical plant employs specialized hardware to detect if harmful chemicals are leaking into the environment. In normal use, should a chemical leak be detected, the sensors will immediately alert personnel so that actions can be taken to contain the leak. This can include shutting off machinery or enacting other types of fail-safes. However, should a cyber attack affect the industrial network that these sensors are placed in, they may fail to alert personnel to a chemical leak. This can have disastrous health and environmental consequences in addition to any legal and/or public retaliation the company could face.

Other Controls

A cyber attack on an industrial network can also affect ''Programmable Logic Controllers'' and ''Remote Terminal Units''.

A Programmable Logic Controller, or simply PLC, is a solid-state computer that has the ability to make logic-based decisions by analyzing the inputs and outputs for automated processes or other machines.

A Remote Terminal Unit, or RTU, is a device used in industrial networks in order to connect various hardware to other aspects of the industrial network.

Commonly found in petrochemical refineries, nuclear power plants, and sewage treatment plants, the inability of PLCs and RTUs to operate can adversely affect operations, employees, and the general public. For example, without a PLC to analyze automated processes and an RTU to route critical system information throughout the network, operations at a sewage treatment plant may come to a halt, affecting a large number of citizens.

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