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Blog / 6 min read

A Comprehensive Guide to SCADA Cybersecurity

The Claroty Team
/ February 1st, 2024

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems are used in various critical infrastructure industries to monitor and control processes and infrastructure. In sectors such as energy, water and wastewater management, manufacturing, transportation, and more, SCADA systems are crucial in managing and controlling diverse systems, improving efficiency, reducing downtime, and enhancing overall operational reliability. In recent years, however, these systems have become increasingly interconnected, giving rise to new attack vectors for cyber criminals to exploit. As a result, SCADA cybersecurity has become more important than ever before.

What is SCADA Cybersecurity?

As mentioned above, SCADA systems provide organizations with several advantages such as cost reduction, flexibility, and performance efficiency; however, as threats against these systems have spiked — largely due to increased remote access and internet connectivity — the cybersecurity risks have quickly outpaced the benefits. In a worse case scenario, hacks to these systems can result in adversaries gaining control of the water supply system of a city, shutting down electricity, or even causing malfunctions in nuclear reactors. These examples emphasize the importance and criticality of SCADA cybersecurity in critical infrastructure sectors. By implementing SCADA cybersecurity best practices and solutions organizations can safeguard against cybersecurity threats, and protect the industrial control systems (ICS) that underpin their operations from disruptions that can have severe impact on the economy, environment, or safety. Achieving successful SCADA cybersecurity, however, begins with understanding the challenges that come inherently with the use of SCADA systems. 

What are Challenges to SCADA Cybersecurity?

  1. Legacy Systems: SCADA systems were many times built decades ago, without security in mind. As a result, these systems often use outdated technologies and lack modern security features, like encryption and authentication, making them vulnerable to cyber attacks. 

  2. IT/OT Convergence: Historically, IT and OT systems have been managed separately, with different teams responsible for each area. However, as SCADA systems are increasingly connected to IT networks, additional entry points for potential cyberattacks are created — increasing the attack surface.  

  3. Traditional IT Tools: Heightening the IT/OT convergence challenge is the fact that traditional IT security tools can’t be used to protect OT environments. This is due to the fact that OT systems tend to have unique hardware and software architectures, specialized protocols, and different performance requirements — rendering traditional tools ineffective. If utilized, traditional tools have the potential to interfere with critical processes, which may lead to loss of production or, even worse, safety issues. 

  4. Remote Access: Many SCADA systems lack sufficient OT remote access controls, which makes it easier for cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access to critical systems. They also face the issue of internal and third-party users who require remote access of SCADA systems for maintenance and other purposes. If not managed properly, remote access has the potential to bypass network segmentation measures — and, cause an expanded attack surface, introducing new entry points for cyber threats.

  5. Regulatory Requirements: Compliance with regulations can be extremely complex, making it difficult for organizations to understand what is required of them and how to implement the necessary security measures. This is especially true with SCADA systems, where regulatory requirements are often not well-defined or are subject to frequent changes. 

SCADA Cybersecurity Best Practices

Now that we’ve discussed the major challenges to achieving SCADA cybersecurity, it is time to discuss the best practices organizations can follow to ensure the protection and integrity of their critical infrastructure. Although every ICS environment is unique, the following three principles can used as the basis for any effective SCADA cybersecurity strategy:

1. Gain visibility into your ICS environment: 

The first step to implementing a strong SCADA cybersecurity strategy is ensuring that you gain visibility into your entire environment. A comprehensive inventory of all the assets and systems in your critical infrastructure environment lays the foundation for your entire cybersecurity journey — however, gaining full-spectrum visibility is one of the most challenging tasks facing security and risk leaders today. This is due to the challenges we’ve previously identified, including the fact that traditional IT tools are ineffective, and encompass a diverse mix of new and legacy devices that communicate and operate in different ways. Further complicating matters is the fact that there is no one-size-fits all path to asset discovery. Each critical infrastructure environment is unique, and most contain complexities that render certain asset discovery methods ineffective.That’s why it is key to ensure your organizations partners with cyber-physical systems (CPS) security provider that offers multiple, highly flexible discovery methods that can be mixed and matched to deliver full visibility in the manner best suited to your distinct needs.

2. Integrate your existing IT tools and workflow with your ICS:

Once enterprise-wide visibility is achieved, it is essential that organizations integrate their existing IT tools & workflows with OT. Many CPS environments house legacy devices and systems that use proprietary protocols — including SCADA — which are incompatible with traditional IT security solutions. In many environments, traditional vulnerability scanners are unsafe, and patching is rarely permitted due to their low tolerance for downtime. To combat this challenge, organizations require specialized security controls and collaboration between IT and OT security teams to ensure their systems are protected against cyber attacks. By partnering with a CPS security solution that integrates with their already-extensive tech stack, organizations can simply extend their existing tools and workflow from IT to OT. 

3. Extend your IT security controls and governance to your ICS environment: 

Unlike their IT counterparts, most ICS environments lack essential cybersecurity controls and consistent governance. That’s because many legacy industrial devices and systems, like SCADA, were built with a focus on functionality and operational reliability, rather than security, as these systems were not initially intended to be connected. This rise of interconnectedness has caused these previously “air-gapped” systems to become converged with IT networks — leaving security teams with a lack of awareness and understanding about the unique challenges of these newly interconnected ICS environments. Without a dedicated security team or help form a solution that specializes in securing OT systems, organizations will suffer from a lack of consistent governance and controls. To resolve this, organizations should partner with a CPS security vendor that can provide visibility into all ICS, integrate your existing IT tools and workflows with OT, and help to extend your IT controls to ICS by unifying your security governance and driving all use cases on your journey to cyber and operational resilience.

SCADA systems are critical in maintaining efficiency, processing data for smarter decisions, and in helping industrial organizations mitigate downtime. But, as with anything connected to the internet, SCADA systems have become subject to the increased threat of cyber attacks and have fallen victim to several notable breaches in recent years. As the threat landscape continues to evolve, it is crucial that cybersecurity parallels the challenges that are posed to SCADA systems. By understanding what threat actors are looking to exploit, implementing the SCADA cybersecurity best practices above, and partnering with the right security vendor, critical infrastructure organizations can successfully harden their defenses and protect their critical systems from attacks.

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