The water that flows out of your taps. The electricity that powers your neighborhood. The roads and bridges that connect your city to the rest of the country.
All of them come from critical infrastructure, and all of them rely increasingly on data and information technology to function.
Over the last decade, cybersecurity threats have grown in number and in sophistication. At the same time, critical infrastructure has become more and more dependent on technology. While this connectivity brings major benefits, it also exposes infrastructure to significant data security risks.
The consequences of data breaches in critical infrastructure systems can be severe, cutting off essential services like power and water and even causing the loss of life. It’s no surprise that data security for infrastructure is a major concern — or that protecting critical infrastructure from cyberthreats is one of the five pillars of the new US National Cybersecurity Strategy. Keeping infrastructure safe from cyberthreats is increasingly a top priority around the world.
So, what are we up against? What are the top cybersecurity risks to critical infrastructure, and what can be done about them? We’ll explore in detail below.
What are the top data security threats to critical infrastructure?
Ransomware has become one of the most prominent threats to critical infrastructure in recent years. A growing issue, ransomware can lead to prolonged downtime for vital systems and significant financial losses.
Ransomware can be especially devastating in infrastructure organizations, since the loss of important data can shut down power grids, utilities, and more. Take, for instance, the 2020 Colonial Pipeline attack, which shut down a pipeline that supplied fuel to the eastern United States. The repercussions of that attack involved fuel shortages and price spikes nationwide, not to mention a $4.4 million ransom paid by the company.
Advanced Persistent Threats
Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) are long-term, sophisticated cyberattacks that are carefully planned and executed by skilled adversaries. APTs are designed to remain undetected for many months or even years in order to subtly gain access to sensitive information and disrupt vital operations.
APTs typically involve multiple stages and use various techniques — including zero-day exploits, custom malware, and encryption — to evade detection. For instance, the infamous Stuxnet worm was specifically designed to target and sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities. The attack resulted in significant damage to the nuclear program and highlighted the potential for APTs to disrupt critical infrastructure operations.
A joint advisory issued last year by various US intelligence agencies revealed that certain ATP actors have already demonstrated the ability to gain full access to industrial control systems used in critical infrastructure. The advisory listed an extensive list of steps that infrastructure organizations should take to mitigate this risk.
Insider threats pose a significant data security risk to critical infrastructure. These threats can come from current or former employees, contractors, or anyone with legitimate access to critical systems and data.
Insider threats can occur due to malicious intent, such as an employee intentionally stealing or manipulating data for personal gain or revenge. However, they can also happen inadvertently, like when an employee accidentally sends sensitive information to the wrong person.
Supply chain attacks
Supply chain attacks in critical infrastructure happen when cybercriminals exploit vulnerabilities in the supply chain to gain unauthorized access, typically through vendor accounts. This type of cyberthreat can be challenging to detect and devastating if it continues unnoticed.
The most notable example of a supply chain attack is perhaps the 2020 SolarWinds attack that infiltrated dozens of companies and organizations, including several US government agencies. The attackers were able to gain access to these organizations by injecting malware into the software of SolarWinds, a trusted IT management software provider.
Phishing, social engineering, and human error
As much as we might like to think that the majority of data breaches happen because of criminal masterminds, the true leading cause is human error. In fact, a full 82% of breaches surveyed in 2021 involved human error of some type.
Security errors in the workplace can range from misconfigured storage locations to weak passwords and credential misuse. But they increasingly involve phishing attempts, which use sophisticated social engineering to trick employees into downloading infected files or allowing outside access to sensitive data.
If a phishing attempt is successful, the attacker can use it to achieve one of several aims. They might gain unauthorized access to a targeted system in order to manipulate power grids, water treatment plants, or transportation networks. Or they might deliver malware in order to steal data, disrupt operations, or cause physical damage to infrastructure assets.
Strengthening data security for critical infrastructure
As our critical infrastructure becomes increasingly reliant on technology, the risk of cyberthreats becomes more significant. Ransomware, APTs, insider threats, phishing and human error, and supply chain attacks all pose significant data security risks to critical infrastructure, with potentially severe consequences.
To face these threats, it’s crucial that infrastructure organizations implement robust cybersecurity measures. This includes regular risk assessments, employee training, network segmentation, incident response plans, and more.
Organizations should also implement strong access controls, including biometric authentication and MFA, to ensure that only authorized personnel can access sensitive data. And they should consider strong data security and resilience solutions to ensure that their data remains accurate and available, even when it’s faced with cyberattacks.
ShardSecure: data security for critical infrastructure
ShardSecure’s Data Control Platform offers an innovative, agentless approach to data security. Our technology protects critical data against unauthorized users, rendering it unreadable to third parties in on-prem, cloud, and multi-cloud environments. Even if a cybercriminal gains access to an infrastructure provider’s storage locations via APTs, phishing, or ransomware, the data will remain private.
ShardSecure also offers strong data resilience with high availability and data integrity checks. If data is compromised in an outage or an attack, it can be transparently reconstructed in real-time, helping to prevent dangerous downtime for vital infrastructure.