How to fix insecure operational technologies that threaten the global economy

How to fix insecure operational technologies that threaten the global economy

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Today, with the rampant spread of cybercrime, tremendous work is being done to protect our computer networks – to secure our bits and bytes. At the same time, however, there is not enough work being done to secure our atoms – namely, the hard physical infrastructure that runs the global economy.

Nations are now replete with operational technology (OT) platforms that have essentially computerized all of their physical infrastructure, whether buildings and bridges, trains and automobiles, or industrial equipment and assembly lines that keep economies going. But the idea that a hospital bed can be hacked – or a plane or a bridge – is still a very new concept. We need to start taking these threats very seriously because they can cause catastrophic damage.

Imagine, for example, an attack on a major power plant that leaves the northeastern United States without heat during a particularly brutal cold snap. Consider the enormous hardship – and even death – that this type of attack would cause as homes go dark, businesses are cut off from their customers, hospitals struggle to operate, and airports are closed.

The Stuxnet virus, which emerged over a decade ago, was the first indication that physical infrastructure could be a prime target for cyber threats. Stuxnet was a malicious worm that infected software at at least 14 industrial sites in Iran, including a uranium enrichment plant.


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The Stuxnet virus has since mutated and spread to other industrial and power generation facilities around the world. The reality is that critical infrastructures all over the world are now threatened by Stuxnet-type attacks. Indeed, security vulnerabilities lurk in critical systems used in the world’s most important industries, including power, water, transportation, and manufacturing.

Built-in vulnerability

The problem is that tech manufacturers have never designed their products with security in mind. As a result, trillions of dollars in OT assets today are highly vulnerable. The vast majority of these products are built on microcontrollers communicating over unsecured Controller Area Network (CAN) buses. The CAN protocol is used in everything from passenger vehicles and agricultural equipment to medical instruments and building automation. Yet it contains no direct support for secure communications. It also lacks essential authentication and authorization. For example, a CAN frame contains no sender or receiver address information.

Consequently, CAN bus networks are increasingly vulnerable to malicious attacks, especially as the cyberattack landscape expands. This means we need new approaches and solutions to better secure CAN buses and protect critical infrastructure.

Before we talk about what this security should look like, let’s take a look at what can happen if a CAN bus network is compromised. A CAN bus essentially serves as a shared communication channel for multiple microprocessors. In an automobile, for example, the CAN bus allows the engine system, combustion system, braking system, and lighting system to communicate seamlessly with each other over the shared channel.

But since the CAN bus is inherently insecure, hackers can interfere with this communication and start sending random messages that are still protocol compliant. Just imagine the chaos that would ensue if even a small-scale hack of automated vehicles occurred, turning driverless cars into a swarm of potentially deadly objects.

The challenge for the automotive industry – in fact for all major industries – is to design a fail-safe mechanism for CAN with strong built-in protection, high fault tolerance and low cost. That’s why I see a huge opportunity for startups that can solve this problem and ultimately defend all of our physical assets – every plane, train, manufacturing system, etc. – against cyberattacks.

How OT security would work

What would such a business look like? Well, for starters, it could attempt to solve the security problem by adding an intelligence layer – as well as an authentication layer – to a legacy CAN bus. This type of solution could intercept CAN data and deconstruct the protocol to enrich and alert on abnormal communications traversing OT data buses. With such a solution installed, operators of high-value physical equipment would gain real-time actionable insights into anomalies and intrusions into their systems – and thus be better equipped to thwart any cyber attacks.

This type of business will likely come from the defense industry. It will have deep core technology at the built-in data plane level, as well as the ability to analyze various machine protocols.

With the right team and the right support, this is easily a $10+ billion opportunity. There are few obligations more important than protecting our physical infrastructure. This is why there is a pressing need for new solutions that are deeply focused on hardening critical assets against cyberattacks.

Adit Singh is partner of Cota Capital.


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