Protecting Critical Infrastructure in the Digital Battlefield

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Traditional wars, which typically involve causing physical damage to troops, military equipment and infrastructure, are only one facet of today’s battlefield. While military events, such as the invasion of Crimea, unfortunately still occur occasionally, conflicts strictly driven by kinetic effects are becoming a thing of the past. Like everything else, warfare has evolved. Modern warfare does not rely strictly on conventional weapons and defense systems; the new battlefield is digital and often cannot be seen or heard. In his book ‘On War,’ Carl von Clausewitz defined war as “…an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will… to attain this object fully, the enemy must be disarmed.” Modern cyberespionage capabilities make this a possibility. 

Physical casualties are not the only risk; instead, critical infrastructure is increasingly the most vulnerable target on the digital battlefield. Countries have increased their investment in their own intrusion sets. While they’ve not admitted it, the Cosy Bear and Lazarus hacker groups, famous for the Wannacry and Sunburst attacks, are believed to be backed by the Russian and North Korean governments. As more compute and control are pushed to the edge, nation-state hacker groups are presented with more opportunities to exploit businesses and critical infrastructure. If an adversary can control a power grid, an industrial line, or a nuclear submarine by hacking software, the potential damage could be just as lethal as conventional warfare. 

Security at the Edge

Cyber-attacks have become so frequent that governments are making a point of integrating cybersecurity into more policies. However, security teams can’t stand on ceremony, ransomware attacks now happen every 11 seconds, so security teams need to build more resilience to protect the machines they’re working with within the here and now.

Systems should be built for continuous development, not only to patch vulnerabilities and repair damage but also to add functionality and improvements. Most systems are built with this approach, but for mission-critical systems, this is more difficult. For significant updates to take place, systems need to be rebooted, which isn’t always possible for mission-critical systems. For a rocket in space or the case of a power grid, updates can only occur at specific times, meaning that security teams don’t have the luxury of regular development cycles.  

The issue gets more complicated when looking at embedded systems. Many edge devices must be updated physically, even if they are in isolated locations — or they are simply not updateable at all. Edge devices share similar security problems as IoT devices; both sit across a diverse range of use cases, are not built with traditional hardware protocols and are often not built with security in mind. Hackers can look at IoT devices as an easy entry point to a network which can then be exploited to gain access to the core systems.

"While we look to the future, we can see that both military and enterprises will rely on more intelligent and autonomous systems"

While we look to the future, we can see that both military and enterprises will rely on more intelligent and autonomous systems.

For machines to be more intelligent, they will require more connections and edge devices, and as this increases, the number of threat vectors increases. IDC predicts that by 2025 there will be 55.7 billion connected devices worldwide, creating the perfect storm for more future attacks. 

Building Resilience

Hope is not lost, however, and there are tools, tactics and techniques security teams can take advantage of to make sure they’re building intelligent systems with security in mind. 

A Walled Garden Approach: A system that runs on a closed network that limits access for its users. Limiting access is the oldest form of security, and it can be effective. However, a closed network can be tampered with only by someone with physical access to the hardware or data stores. Thus, although it’s effective, it lends itself to a more holistic security approach. This is not always possible for edge devices, but it is an approach that should be considered for critical systems.

Encryption: There are opportunities for encryption at every stage of edge processing and data in motion between devices and data at rest. Hardware encryptors are most effective, but they are expensive to develop. Another solution is to create layers of encryption throughout the system, slowing any possible attack.

Decommissioning: An unprotected embedded device can become a gateway into an edge system in the wrong hands. When hackers gain physical access to a device, they can pull out the source code and reverse-engineer it. For example, whenever a drone crashes in hostile territory, sensitive data may be compromised. Ideally, it should run with a self-destruct feature that would render it useless if it fell into the wrong hands.

Secure by Design

In addition to the approaches above, today, another approach is emerging to enhance security. There is a movement among software developers now to incorporate information security with agile software development — a marriage of DevOps and InfoSec known as DevSecOps.

The DevSecOps approach is rooted in the simple premise that everyone involved in the software development cycle is responsible for security. In addition, this movement encourages the ‘secure by design’ approach, which makes it difficult or impossible for a malicious user to either damage, attack or compromise a system. 

So many devices and legacy systems have been built to ‘build fast and fix later,’ which is why bug bounty programs are so popular, and patches are so frequent. DevSecOps is for the modern developer who anticipates and expects cyber-attacks. Critical infrastructure and defense technologies are a prime target and will be exploited more, so DevSecOps should be the only process for development to make systems secure by design. 

Today, DevSecOps is being embraced as a preferred methodology for developing, deploying, operating and servicing software-enabled systems across the Aerospace & Defense sector. It builds on agile techniques and points us to a future where continuous authority to operate (CATO) becomes a reality for all A&D systems. A future when security and safety are inherent and assured characteristics for all intelligent systems throughout their lifecycle. 

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