Pandemic thinking: What if there were a vaccine for OT ransomware?

The year 2020 has been defined globally by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of few silver linings for this difficult set of circumstances is innovation – redesigning normal processes so that life can carry on with some degree of regularity and reliability.

OT ransomware

Pre-COVID, we all took certain risks routinely, and the consequences were minor. Now the consequences are much more serious and we respond to these risks by very carefully deciding how we expose ourselves to the coronavirus. Whether sheltering in place, social distancing, or in full government lock-down, we have all felt the fatigue of being under the siege of an invisible threat.

The good news is there is hope at the end of the tunnel – in a matter of months, medical science will catch up to the threat and normal life will resume.

The cyber pandemic

The pandemic has digital consequences as well, for both enterprise networks and OT networks. Not only has the pandemic brought us more online, and forced us into doing nearly everything remotely, macro trends continue as well.

Computers are getting cheaper and CPUs are more ubiquitous than ever before – which means there are more targets for cyber attacks than ever before. Communications is getting cheaper, faster and more universal, and all this connectivity means steadily-increasing opportunities to attack the steadily-increasing number of targets.

The trend towards remote work is not likely to reverse very much post-pandemic, and the macro trends certainly will not reverse – no amount of social distancing will slow down cyber breaches, targeted attacks or targeted ransomware.

Unfortunately, many conventional IT security defenses that we deploy to protect against these threats are porous and hackable. Firewalls, IDS, security updates, VPNs are all software, with inevitable bugs and security holes, which means that all these defenses can be compromised. This is especially troubling in a world of physical, industrial operations that are increasingly dependent on these software-based protections for safe and reliable operation.

Worse, the industrial equivalent of “lock-down”, which is air-gapping, is folklore of the past; air-gapping defeats modern efficiency initiatives and so is either consciously avoided as a modern security strategy, or is implemented badly, resulting in residual connectivity and associated cyber risks.

To operate efficiently, industrial operations nearly always must share data with enterprise and customer systems, and – just as in a global pandemic – the risks and consequences of such contact through cyber connections must be weighed very carefully.

What if there were a vaccine for cyber?

Every pandemic begs a vaccine. What if there were a vaccine for the cyber pandemic? What if there were a vaccine that could prevent OT attacks and the OT ransomware that has shut down hundreds of industrial sites in 2020? Targeted ransomware is one of today’s biggest and nastiest cyber threats.

These targeted attacks defeat conventional defenses at heavily-defended industrial sites. In a sense this is no surprise – many of today’s targeted ransomware groups use attack tools and techniques that were once the sole province of nation-states. A cyber vaccine is needed, urgently.

Unidirectional Security Gateways

The good news – future-proofing our most important services and industries from the cyber pandemic is not as difficult as a COVID vaccine. Today’s hardware-enforced unidirectional gateways stop targeted ransomware and other targeted, remote-control attacks from reaching into industrial networks.

The physical security embedded in the unidirectional hardware does not protect the information, but rather protects the industrial networks from information, more specifically from attacks that may be embedded in information that enters industrial networks.

And unlike air gaps, unidirectional gateways enable seamless flows of operations information from industrial operations out into the enterprise or even out into the Internet beyond the enterprise.

Unidirectional hardware prevents attacks from entering industrial networks, while unidirectional gateway software makes copies of databases and other servers from industrial networks to external networks.

Enterprise and other users simply access the industrial data in the external replica databases. Unidirectional gateways “vaccinate” industrial networks against online attacks, while providing the kind of seamless access to industrial data that modern, efficient enterprises rely on.

There are indeed lessons from the pandemic that we can apply to our industrial networks. Using only software protections means making difficult risk decisions on a regular basis, just as we do with social distancing and lock-downs.

We all look forward to the day of the COVID19 vaccine, when these difficult decisions and risks will disappear. The good news on the cyber side is that the vaccine for OT networks is already available, in the form of Waterfall’s Unidirectional Security Gateways.

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