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Cybersecurity for Industrial Control Systems: Best Practices

September 24, 202311 min read


Industrial control systems (ICSs) are the backbone of critical infrastructure. Power plants, water treatment facilities, and manufacturing plants rely on their smooth operation. These systems monitor and control physical processes, such as temperature, pressure, and flow. However, these systems are also increasingly exposed to cyber threats that can compromise their availability, integrity, and safety. In this guide, we will discuss the common threats to ICSs, why cybersecurity is important for these systems, and the best practices to secure them.

Here are the key things you need to know about cybersecurity for industrial control systems:

  • ICSs face various cyber threats, such as ransomware, malware, and advanced persistent threats (APTs), that disrupt service and cause permanent damage. 
  • ICS cybersecurity is important to protect critical infrastructure, ensure operational continuity, and prevent physical and environmental harm.
  • ICS cybersecurity differs from traditional IT security and presents challenges such as legacy systems, new technology integration, and regulatory compliance.
  • ICS security requires a holistic approach that includes network segmentation, patching and updating software, training employees, implementing multi-factor authentication, and more.

[Table of Contents]

Common Threats for Industrial Control Systems (ICS)

ICSs are not immune to cyberattacks. In fact, they are often targeted by malicious actors who seek to disrupt or damage critical infrastructure. Some of the common threats to ICSs include:

Ransomware: This is a type of malware that encrypts data or systems and demands a ransom for decryption. Ransomware can affect ICSs by locking operators out of their systems or preventing them from accessing vital information. For example, in 2017, the NotPetya ransomware infected several industrial organizations, including a Ukrainian power company and a Danish shipping company.

Malware: This is a general term for any malicious software that can harm or compromise a system. Malware can affect ICSs by stealing data, altering settings, disrupting operations, or causing physical damage. In 2010, the Stuxnet malware targeted Iranian nuclear facilities and caused centrifuges to spin out of control.

APTs: These are advanced persistent threats that are carried out by sophisticated and well-resourced adversaries who aim to infiltrate and persist in a network for a long time. APTs can affect ICSs by conducting espionage, sabotage, or theft. In 2015, the BlackEnergy APT group launched a cyberattack against Ukrainian power grids and caused blackouts for hundreds of thousands of customers.

Why ICS Cybersecurity Is Important

The importance of ICS cybersecurity cannot be overstated. Securing these systems is essential for:

  • Protecting critical infrastructure: ICSs are responsible for delivering essential services that support the economy and society. A cyberattack on these systems can have severe consequences for public health, safety, and security. For example, a cyberattack on a water treatment plant could contaminate the water supply or cause flooding.
  • Ensuring operational continuity: ICSs are vital for maintaining productivity and efficiency in various industries. A cyberattack on these systems can cause downtime, loss of revenue, or reputational damage. For example, a cyberattack on a manufacturing plant could halt production or compromise product quality.
  • Preventing physical and environmental harm: ICSs control physical processes that involve hazardous materials or high-energy equipment. A cyberattack on these systems can cause physical injury or death to workers or civilians or environmental damage. For example, a cyberattack on a gas pipeline could cause an explosion or a fire.

The Challenges of Securing Industrial Control Systems

Securing ICSs is not an easy task. There are several differences between traditional IT security and ICS security that pose various challenges:

  • Legacy systems: Many ICSs were designed decades ago when cybersecurity was not a priority. These systems often run on outdated hardware and software that have known vulnerabilities or lack security features. Moreover, these systems are difficult to replace or upgrade due to high costs or operational constraints.
  • New technology integration: As technology evolves, many ICSs are adopting new technologies such as cloud computing, internet of things (IoT), or wireless communication. These technologies can improve performance and functionality but also introduce new attack vectors and risks. Furthermore, these technologies may not be compatible with legacy systems or existing security measures.
  • Regulatory compliance: ICSs operate in highly regulated environments that require adherence to various standards and regulations. These regulations may vary by industry or region and may impose specific requirements or limitations on security practices. Additionally, these regulations may not keep pace with the changing threat landscape or technology trends.

Cybersecurity for Industrial Control Systems: 7 Best Practices

To secure ICSs effectively, it is important to adopt a holistic approach that covers all aspects of security from prevention to detection to response. Here are some of the best practices to follow:

#1. Segment Networks

Network segmentation is the practice of dividing a network into smaller subnetworks or zones based on functionality, security level, or access control. Network segmentation can help secure ICSs by:

Isolating critical systems from non-critical systems or external networks. This can reduce the attack surface and prevent lateral movement of attackers within the network.
Applying different security policies and controls to different segments based on their risk profile and needs. This can ensure that each segment has the appropriate level of protection and monitoring.
Enhancing visibility and management of network traffic and activity. This can help detect and respond to anomalies or incidents faster and more effectively.

Some of the methods of segmenting networks for ICSs include:

  • Using firewalls, routers, switches, or gateways to create physical or logical boundaries between segments.
  • Using virtual local area networks (VLANs) or virtual private networks (VPNs) to create virtual boundaries between segments.
  • Using encryption, authentication, or authorization to secure data and access between segments.

#2. Regularly Patch and Update Software

Patching and updating software is the process of applying fixes or improvements to software or firmware to address bugs, vulnerabilities, or performance issues. Patching and updating software can help secure ICSs by:

  • Eliminating known vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers. This can reduce the likelihood and impact of cyberattacks.
  • Enhancing functionality and compatibility of software or firmware. This can improve performance and reliability of systems and devices.
  • Complying with regulatory requirements or industry standards. This can avoid penalties or sanctions for non-compliance.

Some of the challenges of patching and updating software for ICSs include:

  • Finding and testing patches or updates that are compatible with legacy systems or devices. This may require coordination with vendors or manufacturers.
  • Scheduling downtime or maintenance windows to apply patches or updates without disrupting operations. This may require planning and communication with stakeholders.
    Balancing security and stability of systems or devices. This may require prioritizing patches or updates based on their criticality and risk.

#3. Train Employees to Build Awareness


Training employees is the process of educating and informing employees about cybersecurity policies, procedures, and best practices. Training employees can help secure ICSs by:

  • Increasing awareness and understanding of cyber threats, risks, and impacts. This can help employees recognize and avoid potential attacks or incidents.
  • Improving skills and knowledge of cybersecurity tools and techniques. This can help employees perform their tasks securely and efficiently.
  • Fostering a culture of security and responsibility among employees. This can help employees report incidents, follow guidelines, and support security initiatives.

Some of the methods of training employees for ICSs include:

  • Providing regular training sessions or workshops on cybersecurity topics relevant to ICSs, such as common threats, security controls, incident response, etc.
  • Developing online courses or modules that employees can access anytime and anywhere.
  • Creating posters, flyers, newsletters, or videos that convey cybersecurity messages or tips in an engaging way.

#4. Implement Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is the practice of requiring two or more factors to verify the identity of a user before granting access to a system or resource. The factors may include something the user knows (such as a password), something the user has (such as a token), or something the user is (such as a fingerprint). MFA can help secure ICSs by:

  • Preventing unauthorized access to systems or resources by attackers who may have stolen or guessed passwords or credentials. This can protect sensitive data and prevent tampering with settings or operations.
  • Enhancing accountability and traceability of user actions by linking them to specific identities. This can help monitor and audit user activity and behavior.
  • Complying with regulatory requirements or industry standards that mandate MFA for certain systems or resources. This can avoid penalties or sanctions for non-compliance.

Some of the challenges of implementing MFA for ICSs include:

  • Finding and deploying MFA solutions that are compatible with legacy systems or devices. This may require coordination with vendors or manufacturers.
  • Educating and training users on how to use MFA solutions correctly and securely. This may require providing guidance and support to users.
  • Balancing security and usability of MFA solutions. This may require choosing MFA factors that are convenient and reliable for users.

#5. Improve Password Hygiene

According to research from Nozomi Networks, poor password hygiene continues to top the lists for critical alerts affecting industrial control systems. 

Passwords are the first line of defense for securing ICS systems. They prevent unauthorized access to critical systems and data. However, passwords can also be the weakest link if they are not managed properly.

Good password hygiene means following some best practices, such as:

  • Using strong and unique passwords for each account and system
  • Changing passwords regularly and avoiding reusing old passwords
  • Storing passwords securely and not sharing them with others
  • Using multi-factor authentication when possible

Managing passwords for ICS systems can be challenging, especially when there are multiple users, devices, and systems involved. That's why you need a password management solution like TeamPassword.

TeamPassword is a security-first password vault that allows you to share passwords with your teammates within an AES 256-bit secured environment. 

TeamPassword helps you create, store, and share passwords securely and easily. You can organize your passwords into groups and assign access permissions to different users. You can also sync your passwords across devices and browsers, so you can access your ICS systems from anywhere. TeamPassword includes a built-in password generator so you can quickly create secure passwords.

Password management is tedious without the right tools - and if that's the case, people usually don't do it. TeamPassword works to make good password hygiene easy. 

#6. Continuously Monitor ICS for Threats

ICS systems are constantly exposed to various threats, such as malware, ransomware, denial-of-service attacks, and phishing. These threats can disrupt the normal operation of ICS systems, cause damage to equipment and infrastructure, and endanger public safety and health.

To prevent these threats from compromising your ICS systems, you need to continuously monitor them for any signs of suspicious or malicious activity. You need to have a clear visibility of your network traffic, system performance, and user behavior. You also need to have a reliable detection system that can alert you of any anomalies or incidents.

#7. Ensure Physical Assets Are Secure

Securing your ICS systems is not only about protecting them from cyber threats, but also from physical threats. Physical threats can include theft, vandalism, sabotage, fire, flood, or natural disasters. These threats can damage or destroy your ICS equipment and data, as well as harm the people who operate or depend on them.

To ensure your physical assets are secure, you need to implement some measures, such as:

  • Locking and securing the locations where your ICS equipment and data are stored
  • Restricting access to authorized personnel only and verifying their identity
  • Installing surveillance cameras and alarms to deter intruders
  • Having backup power sources and data recovery plans in case of emergencies
  • Conducting regular inspections and maintenance of your ICS equipment

Protect Your ICS Passwords & Data With TeamPassword

We've discussed some tips on how to protect your ICS systems from cyber and physical threats. If you're looking for a password management solution designed for teams, give TeamPassword a serious look.

TeamPassword is designed to be so easy to use that your employees won't be tempted to revert to insecure password habits. Divide passwords into groups so that teammates only access what they need, and ensure that your passwords never leave a secure environment. Features like the password generator, reminders, and enforceable 2FA work together to create a practical solution for securing company passwords. 

To learn more about how TeamPassword can help you protect your ICS passwords and data, sign up for a free trial today!

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