Cyber-attacks on Process Plants: It’s not a Myth

Kudankulam nuclear power plant, India; Oldsmar water treatment plant, USA; Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), South Korea; Tasnee petrochemical plant, Saudi Arabia; what do all these have in common?

These plants have all been targeted by hackers and have had their systems comprised and entered by a cyber-attack - through routes such as the payment gateway or the IT programme for fixing PCs remotely – and either took control, stole data, or wiped the systems clean.
In the case of Kudankulam nuclear power plant, it was reported that the same malware was used that had been previously exploited to steal the financial data of millions of individuals in 2016. The attack on KHNP was reported to have resulted in theft of reactor designs and manuals, and the personal details of 10,000 employees. According to a report in the Independent, expert investigators believe that the attack on Tansee was designed to not only shut the plant down but to also trigger an explosion. In the case of the Oldsmar water treatment plant, it was reported that someone remotely took control of the operators PC, increased the level of sodium hydroxide going into the water supply by 100, presumably to try and poison the water, and then simply logged out. Simply devastating results of such attacks.
When thinking of cyber security, we often think of protecting our network and computer systems. Strong firewall and up-to-date antivirus software are in place to keep our systems secure.
The motive for such attacks is subjective and range from financial gain, to intellectual challenge; but what if the intruder does not just want personal or financial data, as is often the case? What if they had far more malicious and deadly intentions in mind? What if they could go through your network and get to the plant controls, like in the case of Oldsmar? How could you gain that control back before something disastrous happened?
As highlighted clearly above, process plants have industrial control systems (ICS) embedded in the various levels of the company’s digitalisation BUT no system is invulnerable. A technology malfunction can lead to asset damage, environmental consequences, financial losses, and even injury or loss of life. Alarms can be disabled, controls can be manipulated, and the signals workers rely upon to ensure safety, are all vulnerable to tampering via cyber-attacks.
Cyber security is a topic that is now covered by the standards for safety instrumented systems (SIL rated systems using IEC61511) and given the risks and subsequent consequences, organisations must understand that cyber threats are just as potent as all other 'traditional' safety risks. Cyber-attacks can hijack the conventional safety measures they have put in place.
Organisations therefore need barriers and safeguards that are genuinely DIVERSE and INDEPENDENT. A manual valve that is independent and cannot be operated from the control system highway is an example of a barrier that can help protect against the risks posed by cyber-attack.
The DEKRA Cyber SafePS assessment identifies all barriers against cyber-attacks that are genuinely independent and will guide you through protection for:
  • People
  • Environment
  • Assets
Our experts assess the risks to produce a Cyber Assessment Report in line with BS EN 61511; this report will include a number of schedules that will ensure all Cyber Critical safeguards are identified and labelled.
The DEKRA Cyber SafePS approach ensures the right balance between INDEPENDENT barriers and computer as well as data highway PROTECTION and gives you the "defence in depth” and “diversity” in protections required by the HSE.
Further interesting reading:
• Newspaper article on KHNP here
• Newspaper article on Oldsmar here
• Harvard Business Review here
• The Chemical Engineer article here