How do chemical manufacturers avoid the nightmare cyberattack scenario?

If you were to draw up a list of places you don’t want to experience a sudden and catastrophic shutdown as the result of a cyberattack, chemical manufacturing plants would be pretty high up there. In addition to halting business operations and production, the nightmare scenario of hazardous materials being released into the human population and the surrounding environment is ever-present. 

But such attacks are becoming increasingly common and sophisticated. A 2021 UK government study, for instance, found that attacks on the chemical industry cost £1.3 billion. Over the years, such attacks have targeted an increasingly varied number of players in the industry too. In 2017, for example, attackers were able to gain control of vital safety systems at a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia. Drug manufacturers, chemical distributors, and even hazardous waste sites are among the other players in the sector to have been impacted by attacks. In January, meanwhile, hackers launched multiple attacks on Israeli chemical factories. 

While no attacks have so far had devastating consequences, the growing sophistication of cybercriminals tied with an increasingly tense geopolitical environment mean that the nightmare scenario is probably closer than it’s ever been. It’s critical, therefore, that chemical manufacturers do everything in their ability to bolster their defenses against cyber attacks.

Increasingly attractive targets

Before digging into what manufacturers can do to bolster their cybersecurity defenses, it’s worth looking at some of the reasons they’re becoming increasingly prominent targets for attack.

Some of the reasons are obvious. For example, chemical manufacturers know how bad the worst-case scenario could be. As a result, when a cybercrime syndicate takes over a plant, they’d probably be more inclined to meet any of the demands that come with a ransomware attack.

But there are other factors at play too. Manufacturing as a whole is becoming increasingly digitized. There are obvious merits to that process. Digitalization has improved processes and efficiency, but it’s also increased the number of entry points that hackers can use to target organizations. It should hardly be surprising then that manufacturing is the most attacked industry, accounting for nearly a quarter of all cyber attacks in 2022.

It’s also worth noting that as geo-political tensions between major powers continue to ramp up, chemical manufacturers will likely become even more lucrative targets for state-backed cybercriminals. Those state-sponsored actors will also know which manufacturers to target in order to do the most damage to enemy states, whether that’s fertilizer manufacturers, pharmaceutical producers, or food producers. These innocuous ingredients in the wrong hands of course can become weaponized, which is why such highly regulated industries need to have appropriate safeguards in place.

Building the right defenses

Fortunately, while cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated, so are cybersecurity defenses. In addition to identifying new threat vectors, leading cybersecurity companies are also constantly identifying new defensive innovations and techniques. But it’s important for manufacturers to partner with the cybersecurity companies that are identifying those threats and creating those new defenses.

In many places, that hasn’t always been a priority for manufacturers. A US report released in May 2020, for instance, noted the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program within the Department of Homeland Security found that the relevant guidance hadn't been updated in more than 10 years.

Of course, a good security provider will go further than just identifying threats and providing basic defense. It will also secure cloud, hybrid, and on-premise business-critical applications and offer proactive vulnerability management, threat detection and response, compliance automation, and application security testing across applications.

Beyond that, they’ll also work with an organization to ensure that it has a proper response plan in place in the event of a successful attack. Such a plan will help the organization minimize any business interruptions and get back up and running as quickly as possible. That not only saves time but also money and the reputation of the organization among both customers and the wider public. In other words, many possible nightmare scenarios instead become incidents that are easily managed and dealt with.

Act now or pay the price later

Ultimately, cybercrime rates aren’t likely to decrease anytime in the near future (especially if there isn’t also a dramatic cooling off of diplomatic temperatures around the world). That means that chemical manufacturers will continue to be attacked in increasingly sophisticated ways. It is important to note that chemical manufacturing is vital to many facets of our daily lives. As such, they should be urgently looking to bolster their cyber defenses particularly to avoid punitive penalties from regulations like ITAR and EAR,.

The best way of doing so is to partner with cybersecurity providers that have expertise in their fields, understand threat detection and response, can protect critical business applications, and can help them develop and implement response plans in the event of a successful attack.

Image Credit: YanLev / Shutterstock

Mark Clark is VP Sales EMEA North, Onapsis.

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