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Are Industrial Control Systems (ICSs) vulnerable?

ICSs such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems have a unique heritage: generally over forty years old, anchored by Operational Technology (OT) and with assets/devices historically isolated from other networks and the internet by air gaps of security. These air gaps are subsequently shrinking or being breached to meet the demand for availability, convenience and productivity (facilitated by greater interconnectivity between corporate networks, the cloud and commercial software). Additional security safeguards are often not put in place to counteract this, meaning that ICS assets and controls can be exposed to potential exploitation and unauthorized system compromise.

Central to this problem is vulnerabilities in the standard software used by ICSs, which provide the entry points to the networks, platforms and control panels of SCADA systems and other ICSs. Secunia’s Vulnerability Review for 2013 discovered a rise in the number of vulnerabilities in SCADA software over the past five years. One reason is that SCADA software today is at the stage mainstream software was 10 years ago: security updates are erratic (there is great variation in how they are handled), compared to what is typically seen with mainstream programs. In fact, many vulnerabilities remain unpatched for longer than one month in SCADA software.

Achieving a strengthened security posture and bridging the divide between OT and IT security is only possible if companies bring their security initiatives/controls up to the same priority ranking as their availability management policies. Vulnerability assessment through scanning the software linked to assets and devices within OT and IT environments plays a pivotal role, because identification of these attack vectors means that risk can be assessed and action can then be taken to avoid security breaches. If endpoints are not protected, then ICSs will always be vulnerable. The most common technique of vulnerability assessment is active network scanning; however, this method is widely considered to be too intrusive and is known for the elevated number of false-positive results that it generates. Authenticated scanning, on the other hand, is a non-intrusive alternative that is in line with the general management approach of SCADA systems: providing the necessary intelligence but without collecting configuration information, conducting asset discovery or probing change management data.

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