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ICS vulnerabilities revealed in report from cybersecurity provider

Sept. 8, 2021

Most industrial-control-system (ICS) vulnerabilities are classified as high or critical severity, have low attack complexity, are remotely exploitable and may cause total loss of availability, according to a research report.

ICS vulnerability disclosures are drastically increasing as high-profile cyber attacks on critical infrastructure and industrial enterprises have elevated ICS security to a mainstream issue, according to the third Biannual ICS Risk & Vulnerability Report, released by Claroty, which is an industrial cybersecurity company.

The report shows a 41% increase in ICS vulnerabilities disclosed in the first half of 2021 compared to the previous six months, which is particularly significant given that in all of 2020 they increased by 25% from 2019 and 33% from 2018.

The report provides a comprehensive analysis of ICS vulnerabilities publicly disclosed during the first half of 2021, including those found by Claroty’s Team82 research team and those from trusted open sources including the National Vulnerability Database (NVD), the Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT), CERT@VDE, MITRE, Schneider Electric and Siemens. The primary author of the report is Chen Fradkin, security researcher at Claroty. Contributors include Rotem Mesika, security research team lead; Nadav Erez, director of innovation; Sharon Brizinov, vulnerability research team leader; and Amir Preminger, vice president of research at Claroty.

“As more enterprises are modernizing their industrial processes by connecting them to the cloud, they are also giving threat actors more ways to compromise industrial operations through ransomware and extortion attacks,” said Amir Preminger, vice president of research at Claroty. “The recent cyber attacks on Colonial Pipeline, JBS Foods and the Oldmsar, Florida, water treatment facility have not only shown the fragility of critical infrastructure and manufacturing environments that are exposed to the Internet, but have also inspired more security researchers to focus their efforts on ICS specifically.”

Key findings

ICS vulnerability disclosures are accelerating significantly, shining a light on the magnitude of security flaws that are just now being discovered in operational technology (OT) environments. Six hundred thirty-seven ICS vulnerabilities were disclosed in the first six months of 2021, a 41% increase from the 449 vulnerabilities disclosed in the latter half of 2020. Eighty-one percent of those were discovered by sources external to the affected vendor, including third-party companies, independent researchers, academics and other research groups. Additionally, 42 new researchers reported vulnerabilities.

Seventy-one percent of the vulnerabilities are classified as high or critical, reflecting the high severity and impactful nature of the exposures and their potential risk to operations, while 90% have low attack complexity, meaning they do not require special conditions and an attacker can expect repeatable success every time.

Remarkably, 74% do not require privileges, meaning the attacker is unauthorized and does not require any access to settings or files, and 66% do not require user interaction, such as opening an email, clicking on links or attachments or sharing sensitive personal or financial information.

More than half (61%) are remotely exploitable, demonstrating the importance of securing remote connections and Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrial IoT (IIoT) devices.

A startling 65% may cause total loss of availability, resulting in denial of access to resources, and 26% have either no available fix or only a partial remediation, highlighting one of the key challenges of securing OT environments compared to IT environments.

The top mitigation steps noted in ICS-CERT alerts and vendor advisories include network segmentation (applies to 59% of vulnerabilities), secure remote access (53%) and ransomware, phishing and spam protection (33%).

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