How blockchain can help prevent cyberattacks like the Colonial Pipeline hack

Colonial Pipeline, JBS, Stuxnet, internet-of-things, denial-of-service attacks, Blockchain,  5G

Recent cyberattacks against Colonial Pipeline, meat-processor JBS and other organisations highlight the urgent need to increase cybersecurity around critical infrastructure in the United States. Ensuring proper cybersecurity measures must remain a priority for private and public companies, especially given the increasingly online and digital nature of operating systems today.

Currently, many industrial control systems are run by supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which are a mixture of software and hardware components that enable the control of facilities like production plants. Companies typically use industrial control systems, and by extension SCADA systems, to gather real-time data on all aspects of industrial production, ranging from the refining of oil to the control of waste disposal and even coordinating the transportation of goods.

The critical oversight role that SCADA systems play within the industrial control system framework makes SCADA systems particularly appealing to threat actors, with Stuxnet being the first known to exclusively target SCADA systems to control networks.

Colonial Pipeline, JBS, Stuxnet, internet-of-things, denial-of-service attacks, Blockchain,  5G

Gasoline tankers pass by the Colonial Pipeline storage tanks located in Austell, Georgia, on May 10, as they enter the Marathon Powder Springs Terminal. Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

Could implementing a blockchain framework help prevent such cyberattacks on industrial control and SCADA systems? The answer is a resounding yes, particularly if blockchain implementation is also merged with other emerging technologies like internet-of-things devices and 5G.

SCADA systems currently have several key components needed for a system to function, such as the SCADA display unit, remote terminal units, a control unit, and some sort of communication link to tie the network together.

The SCADA display unit allows for the monitoring of the entire industrial control system, while remote terminal units help to monitor the specific process being managed. The control unit passes data between the display unit and remote terminal units, with communication links being primarily industry-dependent, including Ethernet, internet-based wide-area network (WAN) links, and even radio waves.

SCADA systems are primarily made secure through local area network (LAN) and WAN devices. These tools allow for increased monitoring of SCADA processes. However, by virtue of the increasing popularity of internet protocol (IP)-based systems, SCADA systems also inherit the same vulnerabilities, among many others. SCADA systems can be breached in a variety of ways – through denial-of-service attacks, spoofing attacks, or even through spam emails.

Colonial Pipeline, JBS, Stuxnet, internet-of-things, denial-of-service attacks, Blockchain,  5G

People work at a production line of the JBS-Friboi chicken processing plant in Lapa, Parana State, Brazil, in March 2017. JBS USA, the American subsidiary of the world’s largest meat processing company, said on May 31 that it had been hacked, affecting its US and Australian IT systems. Photo: AFP

This makes protecting SCADA systems especially important for public and private organisations alike, with these systems often being the key to monitoring and protecting critical infrastructure throughout the world.

Blockchain could provide increased security for SCADA systems by acting as an instrument of authentication, authorisation and non-repudiation of critical data. Two specific cases that blockchain could be used n are as a secure protocol between SCADA display units and remote terminal units, and as a verification tool to validate system firmware and software.

By employing blockchain between SCADA display units and remote terminal units, threat actors would be unable to conduct cyberattacks such as spoofing. Blockchain’s verifiable credentials would ensure that only industrial control system and SCADA-approved devices could effectively function on such a network, with threat actors immediately breaking the chain, preventing any specific action.

Additionally, using blockchain to protect and verify firmware and software updates for system components would add another layer of protection to SCADA systems. Such blockchain-based registration of firmware and software could prevent situations like the 2014 Havex attack, when malware posing as legitimate software downloads for industrial control system software affected a variety of organisations in the US and Europe.

Integrating blockchain technology with internet-of-things devices and 5G could add additional layers of security for SCADA systems. While powerful in their own respects, combining these revolutionary technologies through all-encompassing tools like private networks are the best way to secure SCADA systems in both the short and long term.

In a private network, only authenticated users and devices would be able to access that specific network. Additionally, an on-premise solution deployed by an organisation with its own base stations and core would further remove system vulnerabilities from SCADA systems. An additional layer of security would be added by the private network through its local processing of company data, ensuring security and data privacy for industrial purposes.

Ultimately, blockchain and emerging technologies like private networks can help increase security for SCADA systems as the world becomes increasingly digitised. This type of security against cyber threats is especially vital to safeguard countries’ critical infrastructure, whether that be an oil pipeline, water plant or even air conditioning unit.

However, regardless of the type of blockchain security or private network, a system is only as secure as the employees trained to operate it. Human error will remain a potential avenue of approach for threat actors looking to damage industrial systems, no matter how secure those networks may seem from the outside.

Hugh Harsono writes regularly for multiple publications about cyberspace, economics, foreign affairs and technology

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