How to fix insecure operational tech that threatens the global economy

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Today, with cybercrime so widespread, there is a lot of work being done to protect our computer networks — to secure our bits and bytes. At the same time, however, not enough work is being done to secure our atoms – that is, the hard physical infrastructure that runs the world economy.

Today’s countries are awash with operational technology (OT) platforms that essentially computerize their entire physical infrastructure, whether it’s buildings and bridges, trains and cars or the industrial equipment and assembly lines that economies continue to hum. But the idea that a hospital bed can be hacked — or a plane or a bridge — is still a relatively new concept. We need to start taking such threats seriously because they can cause catastrophic damage.

Consider, for example, an attack on a major power generation plant that left the Northeast US without heat during a particularly brutal winter. Imagine the immense suffering – and even death – that this type of attack could cause as homes go dark, businesses are cut off from customers, hospitals struggle to operate and airports are closed.

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

The Stuxnet virus has since mutated and spread to other industrial and energy production facilities around the world. The reality is that critical infrastructure everywhere is now at risk from attacks like Stuxnet. In fact, security flaws are hiding critical systems used by the world’s most important industries, including power, water, transportation and manufacturing.

Built-in weakness

The problem is that operating technology manufacturers don’t really design their products with security in mind. As a result, trillions of dollars in OT assets are now extremely vulnerable. Most of these products are built on microcontrollers that communicate over insecure controller area network (CAN) buses. The CAN protocol is used in everything from passenger cars and agricultural equipment to medical instruments and building automation. However it does not have direct support for secure communication. It also lacks all important authentication and authorization. For example, the CAN frame does not include any information about the address of the sender or the receiver.

As a result, CAN bus networks are more vulnerable to malicious attacks, especially if the cyberattack landscape is expanding. This means that we need new methods and solutions to better secure CAN buses and protect critical infrastructure.

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

But because the CAN bus is insecure, hackers can disrupt that communication and start sending random messages that still follow the protocol. Just imagine the chaos that would ensue if even a small hack of automated vehicles took place, turning driverless cars into a swarm of potentially lethal objects.

The challenge for the automotive industry – indeed for all major industries – is to design a security mechanism for CAN with robust, embedded protection, high fault tolerance and low cost. That’s why I see a huge opportunity for startups that can address this issue and ultimately protect all of our physical assets — every plane, train, manufacturing system, etc. —from cyberattack.

How OT security works

What would such a company look like? Well, to begin with, it is possible to try 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 can intercept the data from the CAN and deconstruct the protocol to improve and alert the anomalous communication passing through the OT data buses. With such a solution installed, operators with high-value physical equipment can get real-time, actionable insight into anomalies and attacks on their systems – and thus more equipped to prevent any cyberattack.

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This type of company is most likely from the defense industry. It has deep foundation technology in the embedded data plane, as well as the ability to analyze different machine protocols.

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

Adit Singh is a partner at Cota Capital.

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