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SCADA vulnerabilities in ICS architectures
2018-08-01
A major challenge in industrial control system architecture involves the dual nature of its underlying technologies. That is, a typical ICS component must have the capability to exchange information with both IT and OT systems across designated network or system interfaces. This is different from traditional industrial devices like heat pumps, actuators, and motors that were previously only accessed and controlled by OT systems, usually either analog or electro-mechanical.
So, today the existence of two access points for devices represents one of the primary vulnerabilities in OT/ICS infrastructure, and prompts the general strategy that malicious actors tend to follow. That is, conventional IT hacking tools and techniques would be typically used to first achieve sufficient proximity to the ICS component. Using this proximity, the attack would then attempt to either subvert OT control, or the device directly.

The term SCADA refers to the supervisory control and data acquisition functions that exist at Level 2 of the Purdue model, and that are the essence of this IT/OT interface. Because of this attack path vulnerability, cyber security experts have increasing focused on demanding improved security features SCADA software, which is much easier for new control functions, than for legacy SCADA systems that might have been in place for many years. These experts recognize though, that no matter how many security features are built into OT software, all software has bugs and other residual vulnerabilities.


The reason SCADA security is so controversial stems primarily from the intense consequences that come from a compromise in this area. Unlike some purely technical debates where issues of cost, functionality, or standards might be considered, when SCADA systems are hacked the consequences can include the following types of potential types of severe impact:

Industrial Control System Hijacking – The remote-control safety-critical or reliability-critical OT system in an industrial control setting could be hijacked by criminals, terrorists, or aggressive military groups.
Vital Telemetry Interference – Important information beaconed from an OT system regarding possible safety or equipment-damaging conditions in an industrial control system might be blocked or interfered with.

Critical OT System Unavailability – The accessibility and availability of OT systems might be blocked or degraded, which could have real-time consequences if that target system is required for essential control of physical operations.