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Blog / 6 min read

Aerospace Cybersecurity: Protecting the Skies in the Digital Age

The Claroty Team
/ January 25th, 2024
By understanding the challenges to aerospace cybersecurity, implementing the key principles to securing aerospace, and partnering with the right CPS protection platform, organizations can harden their security defenses and protect against the toughest of aerospace cybersecurity threats.

The aerospace industry is extremely complex and interconnected, it comprises various components, organizations, and activities related to air travel, aircraft manufacturing, and other supporting services. Key components of this sector include airlines, aircraft manufacturing, airports, traffic management, regulatory bodies, and more. In the last decade, digital transformation has had a profound impact on the aerospace sector, revolutionizing various aspects including aircraft design, manufacturing, operations, and customer experiences. Unfortunately, for many aerospace organizations, the benefits brought about by digital transformation have become outpaced by industrial cybersecurity risks. 

What is Aerospace Cybersecurity?

The aerospace industry is continuously modernizing operations to help ensure safe and efficient operations. However, introducing internet connectivity to formerly air-gapped operational technology (OT) introduces cyber risk that may pose significant threats to the safety and reliability of aviation operations. As a result, aerospace organizations and regulatory bodies have been working to establish security measures and best practices to secure the cyber-physical systems (CPS) and networks within their environments. As we know, establishing robust cybersecurity measures has become critically important as aerospace organizations continue to adopt advanced technologies; however, they are faced with myriad of challenges when it comes to successfully implementing these measures. 

Challenges to Aerospace Cybersecurity

The ultimate goal of aerospace cybersecurity is to prevent cyber threats that could compromise the safety and reliability of aerospace systems. However, in order to do so, aerospace organizations must combat the following challenges: 

  1. Legacy Systems: Legacy systems in aerospace environments were manufactured many times decades ago, without cybersecurity in mind, and may lack the necessary features to protect them against cyber attacks. As digital transformation accelerates, these previously “air-gapped” devices are now connected to the internet, causing new attack vectors to emerge. The cost of updating this equipment, however, outweighs the benefits of doing so, making projects challenging to justify.

  2. Ransomware: In recent years, IT and OT convergence has caused adversaries to become increasingly targeted in their ransomware strategies, shifting from opportunistic, spray-and-pray cyberattacks to a more deliberate approach that intentionally seeks to exploit specific companies with low tolerance for operational downtime. Aerospace firms are particularly at risk due to the impact a hack can have on national security and critical infrastructure. This was seen during the recent ransomware attack on defense giant Elbit Systems of America — which is not the first time the organization has been targeted by hackers.   

  3. Supply Chain Vulnerabilities: The aerospace industry lies in a complex web of global supply chains, requiring numerous vendors for components and software. Although these supply chains are efficient, they introduce cybersecurity risks such as vulnerabilities that can be exploited to compromise the security of aircraft systems. Supply chain cyber attacks have wreaked havoc globally in recent years and can cause major disruptions to an organization's services. For example, in April 2022, the Canadian airline, Suwing Airlines, experienced major delays after a third-party system the airline uses was hacked.  

  4. Regulatory Compliance: The aerospace sector faces a delicate challenge related to balancing stringent safety regulations and emerging cybersecurity mandates. Complying with aviation safety standards must now be coordinated seamlessly with cybersecurity standards and regulations — adding an extra layer of complexity to the industry’s operations. Recently, the Network and Information Security (NIS) Directive was expanded due to the growing threats posed by digital transformation and the surge in cyber attacks. This expansion has set a baseline for cybersecurity risk in 13 industries and sectors, including aviation. In order to comply with NIS2 in aviation and ensure regulatory penalties are not incurred, organizations will require robust cybersecurity strategies and solutions.    

Key Principles to Securing Aerospace

As we know, the aerospace sector has a unique set of challenges that make it difficult to secure the OT and other CPS that underpin operations and infrastructure. As a result, aerospace organizations should adhere to the following three key principles to protect themselves from new and emerging cyber threats: 

1. Gain visibility into all CPS in your OT environment: 

Gaining full-spectrum visibility is arguably the most important step to lay the foundation for your entire cybersecurity journey. However, in aerospace environments this is an extremely challenging task. This is due to the fact that CPS assets typically use proprietary protocols that are incompatible with, and therefore invisible to, generalized security tools. Aerospace environments may also encompass a diverse mix of new and legacy devices that communicate and operate in different ways, making it difficult to answer the question of what devices are in the environment. Further complicating matters is the fact that there is no one-size-fits all path to asset discovery. As a result, organizations should partner with a CPS security solution 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 tech stack and workflows from IT to OT:

Since most CPS use proprietary protocols and legacy systems, they are simply incompatible with traditional IT solutions — but that doesn’t mean they have no place in OT. Rather than expanding your already-extensive tech stack, you should evaluate a CPS security solution that integrates with them. By extending your existing tools and workflows from IT to OT, you can safely uncover risk blindspots without endangering operations by integrating your already extensive tech stacks with a purpose-built OT security solution. This strategy will help organizations to take control of their risk environment and create further visibility across traditionally siloed teams by simply extending existing tools and workflows from IT to OT.

3. Extend your security governance from IT to OT: 

Unlike their IT counterparts, most CPS environments lack essential cybersecurity controls and consistent governance. As previously mentioned, that’s because legacy systems in many CPS environments were built with a focus on functionality and operational reliability, rather than security, as these systems were not initially intended to be connected to the internet. The rise of interconnectedness has caused these previously “air-gapped” systems to become converged with IT networks — which have not been designed to be connected and managed in the same way. The rapid adoption of digital transformation has left security teams with a lack of awareness and understanding about the unique challenges of these newly interconnected CPS environments. Without a dedicated security team or help from a solution that specializes in securing OT systems, organizations will suffer from a lack of consistent governance and controls. To resolve this, aerospace organizations should adopt a CPS security solution that can provide visibility into all CPS, integrate their existing IT tools and workflows with CPS, and help extend their IT controls to OT by unifying security governance and driving all use cases on their journey to cyber and operational resilience.

As the threat landscape continues to evolve and new attack vectors emerge, cybercriminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their tactics. These challenges and ever-evolving threat landscape have caused aerospace cybersecurity to become essential in safeguarding national security interests. By understanding the challenges to aerospace cybersecurity, implementing the key principles to securing aerospace, and partnering with the right CPS protection platform, organizations can harden their security defenses and protect against the toughest of aerospace cybersecurity threats. 

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