Sectrio

OT Attack Path Analysis: A Comprehensive Guide

By admin
September 19, 2023

The convergence of Information technology (IT) and Operational technology (OT) networks, resulting in the exposure of OT networks to threats, paved the way for OT cybersecurity. OT is the use of hardware and software in critical infrastructure industries like, power, energy, water treatment, manufacturing, etc. Compromise to the security in these industries can result in cascading effects.

OT Attack Path Analysis A Comprehensive Guide

To secure the safety of industries from cyberattacks, organizations come up with many solutions, with attack path analysis being one of them. 

What is attack path analysis?

Attack path analysis is the graphical representation of pathways to crucial data in your organziation, which cybercriminals adapt to gain access. Through attack path analysis, organizations are structured to think the way a bad actor thinks. It is the simulation of ways used by attackers to implement mitigation strategies. 

With the help of attack path analysis, organizations can prioritize threats and take remediation measures accordingly.

The need for attack path analysis

A typical organization, on an average, has 11,000 exploitable security exposures in just one month. The need for attack path analysis cannot be emphasized more!

The following are some more points to highlight the need:

Increased spectrum of threats

There has been an increase in the kinds of threats, and new ones also emerge every day. Every threat is based on some financial, political and other motives, and cybercriminals work toward the disruption of the OT systems to attain them. 

OT systems manage critical infrastructure, and as such, they are easy targets for attackers. This necessitates that you should keep the OT environment alert with an analysis of the possible path taken by hackers and other cybercriminals.

The complexity of the OT environment

OT environment is complex and depends on different devices, systems, and networks. With high interdependency, an attack on one could lead to devastating effects on the OT environment. 

With the help of attack path analysis, you can understand how attacks could surface and ways to tackle them. Some attacks may appear unrelated, but the analysis could lead to insightful findings that could save the organization thousands of dollars.

Compromise due to insider attacks

OT environments are greatly impacted by insider attacks, as people having access have immense technical knowledge and operational expertise to misuse them. This can be kept under check through attack path analysis.

The exploration of ways insiders could use their expertise to scan through systems and exploit them helps to locate threats much before they could happen. This saves the organization from potential attacks that could otherwise be severe.

Regulatory requirements

Attack path analysis is also needed as a part of compliance with regulatory requirements. Industries with OT systems have certain mandatory requirements.

This is required for data protection in view of the increased possibility of attacks on cybersecurity systems. 

Keep business operations on track

There could be total mayhem when a successful cyberattack disrupts business continuity. This can potentially lead to a loss of several millions of dollars and negatively impact the business’s reputation.

With attack path analysis, companies are always on the lookout for attacks, and this helps reduce downtime. The company can also bounce back easily when they are proactive and prepared with an assessment of security.

Assess the priority of exposure

In many organizations, security concerns that require attention are often overlooked. This is because there are too many assets on their network and identifying risks becomes difficult.  This can be avoided with the help of attack path analysis. 

It helps analyze the priority of exposure of assets and thereby to be ready with protection mechanisms before an attack can surface. 

Visualize the way a hacker could think

Seeing the attack paths like a hacker could provide complete visibility of the risks involved. It helps visualize the potential attack chains so that it is easy to understand the assets that could be targeted.

Factors like host reachability, misconfigurations, vulnerabilities, etc., are all risk factors that can be correlated to help fix security issues.

Steps to perform OT attack path analysis

A series of steps, as listed below, need to be followed for effective attack path analysis:

1. Definition of scope

The scope and goals of your analysis must be laid down in clear terms. What are the OT systems, assets, etc., you want to analyze? What is the purpose of your analysis? These are some questions you should answer before you start.

List out the possible vulnerabilities and attack vectors that you wish to uncover through this analysis. This definition gives a proper direction to your activity.

2. Identify the critical systems

There are several critical assets and systems in the OT environment that are exposed to threats. These should be identified so that the priority of threats can be ascertained.

Threats need to be addressed in the order of their criticality so that the most crucial ones can be dealt with first. This can help an organization greatly as serious threats are easily identified and thwarted. 

3. Mapping of the flow of data

Data moves through multiple points, of which some may be prone to weaknesses. Mapping data flows can help locate the weak points so that they can be addressed.

Understanding the flow of data enables the identification of paths attackers may emerge from. 

4. Identify threats and vulnerabilities

You should conduct a vulnerability assessment and threat analysis that is specific to the OT environment. This helps identify the various weaknesses and probable impacts they could cause.

Timely assessment is an important step as it prevents attacks from happening and thereby maintains business continuity.

5. Assess the attack vectors

An attack vector is the pathway attackers enter the OT environment. They could be credential theft, malware, social engineering attacks, insufficient protection, etc. 

Analysis of the attack vectors helps identify ways to avoid them. For example, the data and network access of every employee have to be assessed to prevent insider attacks. 

6. Identify the attack scenario

The mode of operation that the attacker might opt has to be defined. All paths that they could follow to gain access to the OT environment should be analyzed.

Defining the attack scenarios help organizations stay awake to the attacks and prevent them. 

7. Prioritize attacks

The attack scenarios defined should be prioritized based on their severity. Those that could have the highest impact are analyzed first.

Research says that 75% of exposed resources lead only to dead ends and cannot reach critical assets. These can thus be deprioritized to focus on the critical ones.

8. Create strategies for mitigation

The mitigation plan for attack scenarios that were defined should be charted out. A course of action for mitigation could be network segmentation, installing patches etc.

9. Create an incident response plan

A comprehensive incident response plan should be created for OT environments. This can throw light on the recovery procedure in case of an attack.

10. Continuous monitoring

This process is continuous and needs to be monitored and updated periodically. This will help keep the system updated even when newer threats emerge.

Attack path analysis use cases

Attack path analysis finds use in various industries. Some of them are:

Industrial control systems(ICS)

Attack path analysis is useful in identifying weak paths in ICS environments. Industrial processes involve many series of steps, and disruption of anyone can jeopardize the entire operations. Attack path analysis safeguards the entire pathway and prevents any form of attack.

Healthcare industry

The healthcare industry is highly targeted because of the host of information that attackers can get hold of. Medical equipment uses technology to operate now more than anytime before. 

Without proper protection, hospital networks are easily compromised. Any breach can allow access to hospital networks or patient data, which can have devastating effects. To prevent these, attack path analysis can be said to be highly useful for this sector.

Aviation

Threats have evolved in such a way that they can control the signal systems, a crucial one for the aviation industry. When attackers hamper signals, it could lead to loss of lives and can be highly damaging.

Also read: Sectrio Aviation Sector Case study

Attack path analysis helps maintain the safety of aviation systems by predicting the pathways that are prone to attacks. They will be safeguarded to prevent unauthorized access.

Oil and gas fields

Oil refineries, power grids, etc., face heavy disruption and financial losses when an attacker gains access to sensitive networks. A country’s energy distribution system can be completely hampered because of attacks.

Also read: Sectrio Oil and Gas Sector Case study

The attacks can be easily discovered with attack path analysis. This can ensure the continuity of supply and also prevents any environmental damage due to leakage caused as a result of a compromise to the supply network.

Defense operations

Defense networks are very crucial for a country. Knowing its importance, attackers target these networks so that they can easily win a negotiation for a ransom. 

Learn more: Securing the defense sector

Attack path analysis prevents such circumstances and keeps the defense operations of a country safe and secure. 

R&D labs

Research facilitates many new discoveries beneficial to the development of a country. Access to such facilities can cause huge damage to many years of hard work.

For this reason, it is important to perform attack path analysis in such labs. This will help identify the vulnerabilities and protect data and intellectual property.

Telecommunications

Disruptions to communication networks can impact many businesses. There will be delays and defaults due to compromise in communication.

Attack path analysis is useful to keep telecommunication networks under check. Any attempt to breach the networks can easily be identified and rectified.

Financial institutions

Online banking systems, payment gateways, etc., are prone to risks even with anti-virus and other forms of protection. If a bad actor gains access to the financial networks, they can swindle customers’ money, get hold of card information and damage the reputation of the financial institution. 

Attack path analysis helps prevent unauthorized access and thus safeguards the banking network. A safe banking environment can instil confidence in customers.

What should you look for in attack path analysis tools?

To select the best tool for attack path analysis, you have to evaluate them based on the following:

  • The tool should be comprehensive. It should be able to check all security concerns in the attack path and address them. This also depends on your OT environment. Look for a tool that best suits your OT environment.
  • The tool must be able to provide access to the most vulnerable attack paths, and risk-prone run time workloads from one place. A centralized dashboard makes the task simpler and saves time.
  • For easy understanding, the tool must provide a graphical representation of all the risky attack paths. This enables easy analysis of the path so that mitigation measures can be planned.
  • The tool must be able to prioritize and rank the threats in the pathway. Ranking helps the security team to plan the mitigation strategies according to priorities. The high-risk ones will be dealt with first so that they do not disrupt the operations of the business.
  • Since there are several tools available in the market, the one you choose should be compatible with your OT environment. This also includes the regulatory requirements that need to be complied with by your industry.
  • Along with the identification of the attack paths, the tool should be able to suggest measures for mitigation. This makes it easier for the teams to work on suggestions to find suitable remedies for their issue.
  • The tool should be able to integrate well with other tools used already, like IT cybersecurity tools. This ensures that the tool is comprehensive and is able to operate in complement to the others. Otherwise, it may lead to disruption in the working of other tools.
  • Another important feature to look for is scalability. With changes to your OT environment, the tool should be able to adapt and handle the changes the updates. This prevents investment in new tools often and saves a lot of money.
  • The tool you select should be supported by the supplier for any updates and customizations. Any improvements to the tool based on the updated OT environment should also be provided by the supplier. This keeps the tools robust and ready to face emerging threats as well.
  • Above all, the tool should be user-friendly and easy-to-use so that frequent reliance on the vendor is avoided. The documentation provided with the tools should be self-explanatory so that the security team can understand and work accordingly.

Challenges to attack path analysis

Attack path analysis has to tide over these challenges and establish as an effective means of threat identification:

Insider threats

Of all the threats, insider threats are the most challenging. Here, the one who has authorized access within the organization might be the one who is ready to compromise its safety too. 

The OT professionals have complete knowledge of the processes and systems involved and they are also part of attack path analysis. It is quite difficult to identify people who have intentions to endanger the security of the organization.

Complexity of OT environment

The OT environment is complex with many interconnected systems and networks. Understanding the range of effect and level of dependency among the various systems is essential for attack path analysis, but is challenging in reality. 

The complexity prevents identification of dependent networks, and so some may escape the attention of security experts. 

Lack of training

The expertise in OT environment operations is not sufficient to be well-equipped in cybersecurity practices. Organizations need to hire cybersecurity experts to handle attack path analysis. 

It becomes a challenge if enterprises rely on the OT experts to handle cybersecurity also, as they may lack sufficient training in the same and may not be able to map attack pathways effectively.

Use of legacy systems

The use of legacy systems that do not support latest security protocols is a challenge to the implementation of attack path analysis. They are not scalable and so are not compatible with modern security requirements. 

Vendor support is also not available for such systems. This exposes them to threats and vulnerabilities.

Maintaining business continuity

It is indeed a challenge to maintain business continuity while implementing security protocols. There may be interruptions when the systems try to cope with the updated security systems installed.

Organizations should balance implementation of attack path analysis with business continuity so that the normal operations continue without disturbing productivity.

Evolving OT environment

A constantly evolving OT environment can be a challenge to attack path analysis. New kinds of vulnerabilities arise with new devices being added with new protocols and end uses. This necessitates that the analysis should also be revisited frequently.

This consumes a lot of time and effort and needs dedicated personnel, adding up to the cost of the organization.

Key takeaways

The nature of threat landscape, criticality of assets of an organization, and the impact of an attack, reiterate the importance of attack path analysis. Thus, it is imperative that attack path analysis should be comprehensive and continuous to stay relevant. 

With this analysis, tracing the pattern and the route of attack becomes simpler. Organizations can breathe a sigh of relief when they are alert and defuse every attempt made by cybercriminals to gain access to sensitive data

Interested in learning more about how you can deploy APA in your organization? Talk to our APA expert.   

Watch our On-Demand webinar here: How to conduct OT attack path analysis in your organization

https://sectrio.com/fundamentals-of-ot-attack-path-analysis/

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