Industrial Control System Cybersecurity Threats

ICS Cybersecurity Threats

Finding the appropriate balance of effective countermeasures that don’t impact control system operations can be challenging, and in many cases asset owners need to identify levels of acceptable risk to their systems.

Understanding the threat helps asset owners:

  • Understand the realistic profile of a cyber adversary that could target specific control systems.
  • Make better informed decisions regarding what assets to protect and how.
  • Have the right information to fine tune cybersecurity training for specific personnel involved in control system operations.
  • Define the cybersecurity criteria to be met during system design and when the system is fully operational.
  • Understand what countermeasures can be deployed to escalate cyber defenses beyond the capability of recognizing adversaries.
  • Design appropriate security monitoring strategies addressing threat aspects with the greatest contribution to cyber risk.

What is a threat?

A threat is any person (threat actor), circumstance, or event with the potential to cause loss or damage.

It is important to consider threat relative to capability, opportunity, and intent. From a defensive perspective, if we know the capability of our adversaries and the vulnerabilities that would most likely provide them opportunity to attack, we can create countermeasures removing those opportunities. We can also create defenses requiring capabilities beyond the adversary’s ability to compromise.

If there is a certain condition associated with compromising a control system, and we create countermeasures forcing the adversary to work at a level beyond that condition, the economics suggests the attacker may abandon the attack altogether. Ultimately, understanding capabilities and motives should help improve security postures to create countermeasures appropriate to the risk, while minimizing impacts to business operations.


It is important to understand attributes because they are interdependent when it comes to determining whether an adversary may execute an attack. Attributes also allow defenders to create strategies that may thwart attacks.

Alignment of all three attributes—capability, intent, and opportunity—may indicate an attack is imminent. Alignment greatly impacts the probability that a threat actor can execute a successful attack.

As we will see, influencing an adversary’s intent is rarely possible, but improving defensive and detection capabilities to render an adversary’s capability insufficient is always possible. Deploying security countermeasures has a direct effect in removing or changing adversarial opportunities to attack control systems.

Unlike the risk equation, the individual attributes of threat are summed, not multiplied. This means adversaries with a strong intent or motive can still be a threat, even though they may not have the capability or opportunity to launch an attack. Over time, they may acquire or create the capability and opportunity.

Threat is often the least understood and most difficult to quantify because human behavior can be unpredictable, and involves diverse capabilities, intent, and opportunities. Unpredictable behavior creates situations where static countermeasures may not be adequate to protect critical systems.

Hazards vs. Threats

Threats are not predictable in the same way as hazards, meaning cybersecurity cannot be assessed in the same way as safety. Defense-in-depth strategies can help compensate for the diversity of threat actors and their wide range of capabilities. As such, it is important to recognize that as the threat landscape changes, so must our ability to defend the systems.


Hazards are considered situations possessing inherent and known dangers. Examples of hazards include electrical, confined space, or flammable. The failure of a piece of electronics that causes a chamber filled with acid to overflow is also an example of a hazard. In general, this acid overflow hazard falls into the category associated with safety. In safety studies, we have proven historical data about equipment failures that is tied to known dangers and risks, and we can calculate probabilities on when undesirable events might happen. In some cases, we can calculate the actual average time it will take for a system or device to fail based on environmental factors and past use cases. But the data used to do this are based on predictable behavior.

The field of industrial automation has historically collected information on hazards that are used to develop safety guidelines. Databases of hazards and historical events are used to determine the probability of a dangerous event occurring. This in turn allows professional certification of systems to meet measurable safety requirements. Things to consider include system lifetime, mean time between failures, and other measurable attributes that can help system owners proactively manage the safety and resiliency of equipment while optimizing performance.

Hazards can be categorized. Certain attributes are associated with different hazards. These attributes offer analysts information that may be used to develop fairly precise forecasting of different types of events, allowing analysts to plan for certain incidents related safe operation.


Threats are not predictable. Cyber attackers, weather, animals chewing cables, personal events, or falling trees are all examples of threats. If a threats are not man-made, it is still hard to accurately predict how and when they will occur. We don’t have data or granular information to help us determine if and when a threat-based event will happen. For human threats, this can be difficult as we usually cannot define the combined value of capability/opportunity/intent. Safety and security have significant roles in the resiliency and reliability of ICS. Safety and security are complementary, but the disciplines themselves are different. It is important to calculate security risk for control systems, and even more important to calculate appropriate proactive and reactive security mitigation strategies.

Threats are also not predictable even when historical information exists. Being able to categorize threats and predict associated incidents with precision is difficult because people do unpredictable things. This unpredictability is often driven by a multitude of factors beyond the control of even  the threat actor (i.e., weather, politics, personal events).

Threat Actor Categories

By better understanding the capabilities, intents, and opportunities of human threat actors, we can better design defenses for ICS. The types of threat actors can roughly be divided into three categories: mainstream; organized; and terrorist and nation state.

Insider Threats

Can the security of an ICS be threatened by a trusted insider (an employee or vendor) who has specific knowledge of, and access to, the ICS?


Even though an insider may not have intent, they certainly have substantial capability and opportunity, which may make them a significant threat.

Unintentional Threats

Based on known ICS cyber incidents to-date, the most likely ICS attacks originate from an insider, or from an external adversary who has acquired credentials to operate as a trusted insider.

An insider could be acting alone or as a member of a group, or the more serious Terrorist/Nation State attack. The attack may be unintentional or intentional. The causes of an unintentional incident include:

  • Deceived – social engineering, phishing
  • Mistakes
  • Poor training
  • Careless, taking shortcuts, fatigued

A mistake or failure to follow adopted policies can also cause a cyber incident on an ICS that is as severe as a deliberate attack. A well-trained system administrator is crucial to protecting an ICS from cyber attacks.

Intentional Threats

Motivations for launching an intentional attack on an ICS could be related to those cited earlier, but may also include:

  • Recruited – blackmailed, bribed, embedded
  • Revenge – disgruntled, terminated
  • Curiosity
  • Financial

As an example of revenge, Mario Azar, an IT consultant for Pacific Energy Resources, successfully disabled an offshore oil platform’s leak-detection system remotely, using his company’s virtual private network (VPN) over the Internet. After receiving his last payment for contract work, Azar petitioned to continue work as a full-time employee, but Pacific Energy Resources declined to hire him.

Azar continued to remotely log into the leak-detection system, which was used to monitor three offshore oil platforms near Huntington Beach, CA. This resulted in impaired computer system monitoring for leaks on all three offshore platforms.


As ICS developers began to leverage interoperability and open-system connectivity, they moved away from isolated architectures. However, during this transition, many of the systems were still dependent on legacy hardware and software, and the requirements for availability often prohibited asset owners from taking their systems offline for long periods for updates. As a result, appropriate security defenses were not installed, and the ones that were installed often did not provide sufficient defense against modern-day attacks.

ICS defenses have not evolved as quickly as those in the corporate IT world, and in many cases the average ICS is still years behind current levels of cybersecurity found in non-ICS technology.

Because of the rapid integration of technology and networks between corporate IT and control systems, there is a huge push to protect legacy ICS from modern-day attacks. As many of the security countermeasures were developed for environments that set confidentiality as a primary focus, deploying such security mitigation technology into ICS environments (where both availability and integrity are primary objectives) can actually have a negative impact productivity.

Current Trends

What are the current threat trends? As mentioned previously, Stuxnet was a game changer in that it was the first publicly known malware developed to target a specific ICS, as well as a specific process. After Stuxnet, new variants of the malware have surfaced, in addition to other ICS-specific attacks. For example, Havex malware sought control systems using a specific protocol unique to industrial automation.

The emergence of Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) is a trend that cannot be ignored. APT typically refers to cyber threats from nation states. As the name suggests, this type of threat employs advanced techniques to deploy sophisticated attacks that compromise systems, help advance an attacker’s goals, and avoid detection to stay resident as long as possible. The attacks are not necessarily limited to cyber methods of compromising a target. They may be combined with other intelligence resources to reach a specific goal or objective.

This persistence toward reaching a specific goal is different than the objectives of more opportunistic types of attacks where attackers are looking for any information to exploit for financial (or other) gain. Because these are specific attacks, adversaries execute unique, customized code to achieve a specific objective. These threat actors have extensive resources (capability) and motivation (intent) to reach their goals.

Attacker Tools and Techniques

The phases of the attack life cycle include:

  1. Reconnaissance/targeting
  2. Vulnerability assessment
  3. Attack/penetration

Just like a carpenter uses a variety of tools to build a house, an ICS threat actor also uses a number of different tools and techniques to execute an attack.

Specific tools are designed for each specific phase in the attack life cycle. Some tools research the target, some gain and maintain access to a system, and others launch an attack. Part of successfully defending a system depends on understanding your opponent’s capabilities.

Evolving Attack Tools

Many modern ICS threats and exploits are due to the rapid research advancement of more complex attack techniques. There is growth in the number of activities correlating to the system attack life cycle, such as:


  • Cynsys
  • EternalBlue
  • Shodan

Vulnerability assessment

  • Sniper
  • Ettercap


  • Metasploit
  • Gleg Agora, Nessus Scripts, Immunity Canvas

Control System Vulnerabilities

Because we are dealing with industrial automation, control system vulnerability discussions cannot take place without considering the consequences and impact on critical infrastructure. This makes ICS targets appealing to a broad audience and will attract interest from adversaries in all threat actor groups.

Finally, there is a notable increase in the interest in ICS cybersecurity because asset owners are introducing training and compliance efforts to their personnel. This, in turn, drives demand for briefings, conferences, and academic activities—all of which create literature that is available to the community at large.

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