How to fix unsafe operational technology that threatens the global economy

How to fix unsafe operational technology that threatens the global economy

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Today, with the rampant spread of cybercrime, an enormous amount of work has been done to protect our computer networks – to secure our bits and bytes. At the same time, however, not nearly enough work is being done to secure our atoms – namely the hard physical infrastructure that governs the world economy.

Nations are now teeming with operational technology (OT) platforms that have essentially computerized their entire physical infrastructure, whether it’s the buildings and bridges, trains and cars, or the industrial equipment and assembly lines that keep their economies moving. But the notion that a hospital bed could be hacked — or a plane or a bridge — is still a very new concept. We need to start taking such threats seriously because they can cause catastrophic damage.

For example, imagine an attack on a major power plant that leaves the Northeastern United States without heat during a particularly brutal cold spell. Think of the enormous amount of hardship—and even death—that this type of attack would cause as homes go dark, businesses are cut off from customers, hospitals struggle to operate, and airports are shut down.

The Stuxnet virus, which appeared more than a decade ago, was the first indication that physical infrastructure can be a prime target for cyber threats. Stuxnet was a malicious worm that infected the software of 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 energy-producing facilities around the world. The reality is that critical infrastructure everywhere is now vulnerable to Stuxnet-like attacks. Security flaws actually lurk in the critical systems used in the most important industries around the world, including power, water, transportation and manufacturing.

Built-in vulnerability

The problem is that operating technology manufacturers never designed their products with safety in mind. As a result, trillions of dollars in OT assets are highly vulnerable today. The vast majority of these products are built on microcontrollers that communicate over insecure CAN buses (Controller Area Network). The CAN protocol is used in everything from passenger cars and agricultural equipment to medical instruments and building automation. However, it contains no direct support for secure communication. It also lacks all important authentication and authorization. A CAN frame, for example, contains no information about the address of the sender or recipient.

As a result, CAN bus networks are becoming increasingly vulnerable to malicious attacks, especially as the cyber attack landscape expands. This means that we need new approaches and solutions to better secure CAN buses and protect vital infrastructure.

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

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However, because the CAN bus is inherently insecure, hackers can disrupt communications and start sending random messages that still comply with the protocol. 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 – indeed for all major industries – is to design a safety mechanism for CAN with strong, built-in protection, high fault tolerance and low cost. That’s why I see huge opportunities for startups that can solve this problem and ultimately defend all of our physical assets—every plane, train, manufacturing system, and so on—from cyberattacks.

How OT security would work

What would such a company look like? Well, for one, it can attempt to solve the security problem by adding a layer of intelligence – as well as a layer of authentication – to an older CAN bus. This type of solution can capture data from CAN and deconstruct the protocol to enrich and alert on abnormal communication crossing OT data buses. With such a solution installed, operators of high-value physical equipment will gain real-time, actionable insight into anomalies and intrusions into their systems – and thus be better equipped to thwart any cyber attack.

This type of company is likely to come from the defense industry. It will have deep fundamental technology on the embedded computing plane, as well as the ability to analyze various machine protocols.

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

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Adit Singh is a partner of Cota Capital.

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