From Production Slumps to Industrial Espionage: Why the Manufacturing Sector Must Be Better Prepared for Cyber Attacks

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mirko Brandner

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This year’s Hannover Messe (a leading international trade fair for industrial technology) has once again demonstrated that the idea of ‘smart’ factories is no longer a futuristic vision but concrete reality. Automation engineers and manufacturing businesses were shown fully developed ‘industry 4.0’ techniques to take the next step on the road to the fully digitized, intelligent manufacturing plant. New developments ranged from mobile ultrasound measuring devices for foresighted machine maintenance to smart liquid analysis, driverless forklifts and even collaborating robots.

The growing fusion of IT and automated engineering, and the resulting intelligent collaboration of all components involved in the production process promises an increase in efficiency, flexible resource management and the individualisation of mass production. Already, it is obvious that to remain competitive in the long run, companies have to tap into the full potential of digitization.

Increasing Integration Means Increasing Threats

Security experts are wary of the idea of the smart factory because data protection, intellectual property theft, and potential manipulation of the plants are serious and challenging security risks. The fact is that most existing industrial facilities were neither designed for connecting to the Internet nor developed with a special focus on IT security. While more refined production facilities enjoy higher protection through advanced monitoring and alarm systems, the protection of software and applications is often neglected. This can have fatal consequences. Inadequately protected networks, applications and embedded systems pose a huge threat to industrial plants and businesses, as they open the floodgates to hacking attacks and cybercrime. Once attackers gain access to a critical application, they are easily able to manipulate the machines or manufacturing processes remotely. This opens up a range of potential disasters, from occasional interferences within the production process to a complete loss of production, the loss of sensitive corporate data, and industrial espionage.

The reality of these risks was not only demonstrated in 2010 when the computer worm Stuxnet sabotaged a uranium enrichment infrastructure in Iran, but also in 2014, when cyber criminals manipulated the furnace of a German steelworks and were able to shut it down.

According to a current study on product piracy of the Verband Deutscher Maschinen - und Anlagenbau e.V. (VDMA), illegal reproduction of software and machines creates a loss of 7.3 billion Euros every year. Around 70% of all German businesses are affected by plagiarism, and reverse-engineering is the most common cause.

Connected Production Technology Requires a Rethinking of IT Security

If companies want to benefit long-term from the idea of ‘industry 4.0’ and create a competitive advantage, they must not only invest in technically upgrading their production facilities, but also rethink and refresh their existing IT security standards. Traditional security tools against traditional threats remain indispensable, but need to be adapted to growing digitization and supplemented by new, innovative methods of defense. It is common knowledge that traditional anti-virus and anti-spam solutions, firewalls and static encryption programs may not provide adequate protection, but nevertheless, effective security measures directly inserted into applications and programs are extremely valuable.What the industry needs are security solutions that strengthen single applications and embedded systems and enable them to self-protect against tampering, reverse-engineering, and malware insertion. 

If all applications that are involved in the production process were able to intelligently detect threats and defend themselves against all kinds of attacks – regardless of other external measures – security could be more greatly assured. However, there remains a tension between the need for high accessibility of critical data and system 100% of the time and the need for robust security controls. Security measures must never impair the performance of critical applications. For example, downloading a security update should never hinder or delay any production flows, as this could lead to faulty productions or production residue.

In a connected world, where digitization progresses rapidly and finds its way into our factories, we are inevitably faced with an ever-increasing level of vulnerabilities that lead to security breaches. It is thus all the more important that companies are aware of their responsibilities, and design security concepts that focus on the security of industrial plants and their software, while addressing any form of malware. This is the only way that ‘industry 4.0’ can truly work. 

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