Security challenges for SCADA devices

Modern organisations have to deal with more security threats than ever before. The changing nature of the digital landscape continues to affect workplace security, from cloud migration and mobile devices through to online commerce and interactive web applications. Networks themselves are also changing, with elastic and highly connected network architecture increasingly open to security threats and vulnerabilities.

The security of certain networks has been under increased scrutiny over recent years, with the adoption of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) networks creating both opportunities and challenges for modern organisations.

Security challenges for SCADA devices


What is SCADA security?

A SCADA system is a type of process automation system used to collect data from remote sensors and control remote processes. SCADA networks are used across industry sectors to monitor, analyse, and control a wealth of real-time data. Once information has been collected, SCADA systems can also be used to control local and remote processes, interact with devices, and log data.

A number of different protocols are used to control SCADA networks for gas grids and water distribution, commercial applications such as food and beverage processing, and transportation such as rail and air traffic control. While most security issues in the media are related to online commerce and public networks, a rising number of SCADA network attacks has led to an increased discussion of this important topic.

Common SCADA network threats

Cyber attacks can and do affect a wide range of networks and protocols. Even the companies responsible for security are not immune, with SCADA network specialists Schneider Electric recently being hacked in order to target one of its customers. Depending on the technology and expertise applied, SCADA systems can be just as vulnerable as other networks. The vast majority of threats fall into one of the following four categories:

  • Malicious hacking by individuals or groups who want to gain access to a SCADA network and control it from the inside.
  • Specific malware programs used to disrupt networks and processes, including computer viruses and spyware. Malware may pose a significant threat without specifically targeting a SCADA network.
  • Terrorist attacks with malicious intent in order to gain access to a SCADA network. This category is a form of malicious hacking with political, ideological, or religious motivations.
  • Inside error is a major cause of network compromise and disruption, including technological error due to bad code or hardware, and human error due to poor training or carelessness.

SCADA weaknesses and vulnerabilities

SCADA networks play a critical role in important systems such as public infrastructure projects and transportation control mechanisms. These networks have a number of potential weaknesses that leave them open to attack, with their size and scope often difficult to manage. Common sources of vulnerability include:

  • Ineffective or outdated training. Along with the use of the systems themselves, users also need to be trained in monitoring, identifying, and preventing potential threats to security.
  • Attacks often occur when a SCADA system is being updated or altered in some way. CASB solutions and managed security services can provide ongoing security during these critical times.
  • A system is only as secure as its weakest link. App development loopholes need to be addressed, with complex and important industrial control systems increasingly controlled with standard apps over a network.
  • Ineffective monitoring issues often cause security problems, with real-time monitoring being the only way to prevent attacks and minimise disruption. Enterprise firewalls and an intrusion detection system can both provide accurate monitoring.
  • Lack of network maintenance is a real problem for many organisations. Professional vulnerability management demands regular hardware updates, software patches, and administration.

Best practices to overcome challenges

While SCADA systems have a number of weaknesses, robust preventative measures can be employed to enhance the security of any industrial control network. Vulnerability management demands a comprehensive approach, with systems needing to be mapped and monitored in order to detect threats as early as possible. Best practices can be applied by managed security services, including strategic methods to identify, prioritise, and remediate issues before they cause problems.