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IoT Cyber Security: What are the Top Considerations for Critical Infrastructures?

Oct. 2, 2015

Complete connectivity through Industrial IoT technology helps organizations connect and collect more data. Addressing security issues is especially important when sharing that data in critical infrastructures such as oil and gas and utilities.

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) networking and communications technology are increasingly critical to the daily operations of a connected, industrial world. With a greater dependence on providing reliable and secure high-speed connectivity to personnel, smart devices, machinery and many other geographically dispersed assets, everyone in an organization – from the operators in the field to the management teams in the back office – relies on powerful, yet flexible, data communications for the business demands. The overall value proposition that these technologies bring is important for decision-makers to adopt and integrate into their critical infrastructure projects that serve the surrounding population. Some of the main benefits are:

  • Optimizing resource utilization for increased efficiency.
  • Increasing visibility into potential failures and key operational factors through real-time information.
  • Reducing costs and environmental impact through monitoring/control across large geographic regions.
  • Automating safety and security measures to reduce critical event response time.
  • Centralizing policy management to create greater adherence and more uniform enforcement of regulatory and compliance factors.
  • Enabling flexibility, scalability and mobility of networks to increase agility to changing market demands 

When industrial automation was first picking up speed in industries like oil and gas and utilities, there was a heavy focus on how Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems helped collect and transfer critically important data. SCADA systems are still very relevant today, but communications technology has evolved, especially with the adoption of wireless Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications becoming important in allowing operators to access more data from more access points.

Complete connectivity through Industrial IoT technology can further help organizations connect and collect more data. With wireless technology in particular, it is now possible to reach even the most remote locations and transfer data reliably.  Industrial organizations are “digitizing” their operations and creating a connected infrastructure with IP connections, rather than using more traditional serial technologies. With IP enabled sensors or IP/IIoT enabled Access Gateways, the data generated by sensors at an asset location can be valuable to more than just the central control system. This might mean M2M communication with sensors talking directly to each other. It may mean that multiple systems consume the live, real-time sensor data directly from any location in the field. It may even mean that operators connect their sensors directly to the cloud or back office systems. If there is a way to share critical data that addresses security issues and can help provide information to key data users, then that information becomes increasingly valuable.

Many would argue that our critical infrastructure energy projects are only as reliable and secure as the technology serving them. Security will ultimately be the limiting factor on how much IoT is deployed. The traditional trade off of either “easy to use” or “secure”, but not both, is still relevant. IoT solutions often utilize some of the widely deployed security technologies from the Internet to avoid the custom, one-off solutions of past industrial security, if it was used at all. IP technology makes it easier to deploy and talk to sensors, but it also makes it easier for intruders to see and snoop on your valuable data streams. Security through obscurity is not a solution. There are many common attack vectors for industrial devices that become even more relevant when considering the IIoT infrastructures and fully networked, geographically dispersed energy projects.

Oil and gas, for example, is a security-conscious industry. The data that is transmitted via IoT technologies can be extremely useful, if it can meet the security requirements while data is being transferred. With the use of TLS/SSL and basic AES-128 data encryption, even in an Industrial IoT environment where data moves across an open network and it is assumed that an unauthorized party could potentially see the traffic on that network, secure connections can be established. When the data is properly encrypted, an unauthorized party cannot access that data even if they can see it in the network. In wireless connections, standards-based connections will allow relatively easy access to the network itself, leaving just the software encryption to stop snooping. Many consumer IoT technologies are making their way into the IIoT and each has different tradeoffs.

One example in oil and gas is that data gathered and transmitted via IoT technology could identify the utilization or failure rate of a certain type of control equipment. If the failure rate of this equipment was consistent and data was then accessed and analyzed by the producer or trade group, they might be willing to pay users for that data. If efficiency can be improved by just a small percentage, then there are billions and billions of dollars to be saved by creating efficiencies. These are the same promises of SCADA, however with IoT the industry is now looking at how every single asset, across every facility, can be connected through the Internet (or an Intranet), making data readily available to key decision makers whenever it is needed.

Overall, it’s clear that industrial organizations, such as oil and gas producers, must consider some important questions in regards to security of their data transport before ever selecting a technology. For example:

  • What is the M2M communications technology controlling or automating? Is it essential that it operates without failure?
  • What data is being collected and/or transmitted with this technology? Is it time-sensitive and/or mission-critical?
  • What technology solutions have a proven track record for the applications being served?
  • What external factors might impact the reliable transmission and receipt of critical data from one point to another?
  • How does this M2M communications technology address challenges such as data encryption, network access control and signal interference?
  • Do we need this technology solution to be fail-safe in order to prevent or eliminate catastrophic damage from occurring?
  • Is cyber security or physical security a greater concern for this deployment?
  • What vulnerabilities have the Information Security community identified in the type or category of IIoT equipment I use?
  • What is the right tradeoff between easy to use and secure for my installation?

Glenn Longley is the ‎Director of Product Management for IIoT Solutions at FreeWave Technologies, where his responsibilities include owning and driving the full product life cycle management for select product families across several market segments. Previously, he worked at Ferguson Beauregard, Electro Scientific Industries and has 15 years of experience in this field.