Critical Infrastructure Under Attack

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Several recent cyber incidents targeting critical infrastructure prove that no open society is immune to attacks by cybercriminals. The recent shutdown of key US energy pipeline marks just the tip of the iceberg.

Critical infrastructure is becoming more dependent on networks of interconnected devices. For example, only a few decades ago, power grids were essentially operational silos. Today, most grids are closely interlinked — regionally, nationally, and internationally as well as with other industrial sectors. And in contrast to discrete cyberattacks on individual companies, a targeted disruption of critical infrastructure can result in extended supply shortages, power blackouts, public disorder, and other serious consequences.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), cyberattacks on critical infrastructure posed the fifth-highest economic risk in 2020, and the WEF called the potential for such attacks “the new normal across sectors such as energy, healthcare, and transportation.” Another report noted that such attacks can have major spillover effects. Lloyd’s and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Risk Studies calculated the prospective economic and insurance costs of a severe cyberattack against America’s electricity system could amount to more than $240 billion and possibly more than $1 trillion.

Given these potential far-reaching consequences, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure have become a big concern for industry and governments everywhere — and recent events haven’t done much to allay these fears.

A Worldwide Phenomenon
In May 2021, a huge distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack crippled large sections of Belgium’s Internet services, affecting more than 200 organizations, including government, universities, and research institutes. Even parliamentary debates and committee meetings were stalled since no one could access the online services they needed to participate.

A few days later, a ransomware attack shut down the main pipeline carrying gasoline and diesel fuel to the US East Coast. The Colonial Pipeline is America’s largest refined-products pipeline. The company says it transports more than 100 million gallons a day of fossil fuels, including gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and heating oil — or almost half the supply on the East Coast, including supplies for US military facilities. 

In August 2020, the New Zealand Stock Exchange (NZX) was taken offline for four trading days after an unprecedented volumetric DDoS attack launched through its network service provider. New Zealand’s government summoned its national cybersecurity services to investigate, and cyber experts suggested the attacks might have been a dry run of a major attack on other global stock exchanges.

In October 2020, Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, said his country must be ready to fight back against disastrous and extended cyberattacks on critical infrastructure that could upend whole industries.

Obvious Uptick in DDoS Attacks
During the pandemic, there’s been a huge increase in DDoS attacks, brute-forcing of access credentials, and malware targeting Internet-connected devices. The average cost of DDoS bots has dropped and will probably continue to fall. According to Link11’s Q1/2021 DDoS report, the number of attacks witnessed more than doubled, growing 2.3-fold year-over-year. (Disclosure: I’m the COO of Link11.)

Unlike ransomware, which must penetrate IT systems before it can wreak havoc, DDoS attacks appeal to cybercriminals because they’re a more convenient IT weapon since they don’t have to get around multiple security layers to produce the desired ill effects.

The FBI has warned that more DDoS attacks are employing amplification techniques to target US organizations after noting a surge in attack attempts after February 2020. The warnings came after other reports of high-profile DDoS attacks. In February, for example, the largest known DDoS attack was aimed at Amazon Web Services. The company’s infrastructure was slammed with a jaw-dropping 2.3 Tb/s — or 20.6 million requests per second — assault, Amazon reported. The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) also acknowledged the global threat of DDoS attacks.

Similarly, in November, New Zealand cybersecurity organization CertNZ issued an alert about emails sent to financial firms that threatened a DDoS attack unless a ransom was paid.

Predominantly, cybercriminals are just after money. The threat actors behind the most recent and ongoing ransom DDoS (RDDoS or RDoS) campaign identify themselves as state-backed groups Fancy Bear, Cozy Bear, Lazarus Group, and Armada Collective — although it remains unclear whether that’s just been a masquerade to reinforce the hacker’s demands. The demanded ransoms ranged between 10 and 20 Bitcoin (roughly worth $100,000 to $225,000 at the time of the attacks), to be paid to different Bitcoin addresses.

Mitigating the Risk
Critical infrastructure is often more vulnerable to cyberattacks than other sectors. Paying a ransom has ethical implications, will directly aid the hackers’ future operations (as noted by the FBI), and will encourage them to hunt other potential victims. Targeted companies are also urged to report any RDoS attacks affecting them to law enforcement.

Organizations can’t avoid being targeted by denial-of-service attacks, but it’s possible to prepare for and potentially reduce the impact should an attack occur. The Australian Cyber Security Centre notes that “preparing for denial-of-service attacks before they occur is by far the best strategy; it is very difficult to respond once they begin and efforts at this stage are unlikely to be effective.”

However, as the architecture of IT infrastructure evolves, it’s getting harder to implement effective local mitigation strategies. Case in point: Network perimeters continue to be weak points because of the increasing use of cloud computing services and devices used for remote work. Also, it is increasingly infeasible to backhaul network traffic, as legitimate users will be banned, too — potentially for hours or days. To minimize the risk of disruption and aim for faster recovery time objectives (RTOs) after an attack, organizations should become more resilient by eliminating human error through stringent automation. These days, solutions based on artificial intelligence and machine learning offer the only viable means of protection against cyberattacks.

Marc Wilczek is a columnist and recognized thought leader, geared toward helping organizations drive their digital agenda and achieve higher levels of innovation and productivity through technology. Over the past 20 years, he has held various senior leadership roles across … View Full Bio

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