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The role of cyber security and industrial control systems in critical infrastructure

Cyber security and industrial control systems (ICS) play a crucial role in securing critical infrastructure, such as power plants, water treatment facilities, transportation systems and other essential services.

In today’s digital world, around 25% of internet users are relying on infrastructure that is susceptible to attack. Protecting these systems is important because a cyber-attack can have severe consequences, including disruption of services, economic loss and potential harm to public safety.

Cyber security and ICS play a vital role in our critical infrastructure, keeping everything running smoothly so that the general population can go about their daily lives. If you’re reading this article, you may be interested in pursuing a career in cyber security. If so, consider enrolling in a cyber security master’s program online from St. Bonaventure University.

This program provides a solid foundation in areas such as cloud security, machine learning and artificial intelligence, secure software design, and data mining, among others. Studying the course with a reputable online course provider such as SBU also means that you can study at a time and place that works best for you.

If you’re simply curious about how those in the industry protect your way of life, keep reading this article to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of today’s largely digital world.

Industrial control systems (ICS)

ICS are the systems and processes used to monitor and control physical equipment in the most important infrastructure sectors. These include supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, distributed control systems (DCS), and programmable logic controllers (PLC). Below, we break down their uses and benefits so that you can understand their importance.

Enhanced efficiency

ICS automate and optimize industrial processes. This means improved efficiency and productivity. By centralizing control and automating routine tasks, people can use their skills and experience to focus on high-level decision-making and troubleshooting, rather than monotonous tasks.

Real-time monitoring

They also make it possible to monitor critical infrastructure systems in real time. Those in the specific role receive up-to-date information on system performance, can detect abnormalities or faults, and are able to act fast to deal with any potential issues.

Remote operations

These systems allow for remote monitoring and control of critical infrastructure equipment. Because of this, the need for on-site presence is reduced. In environments where safety is a high priority because of the production of harmful materials, this minimizes risks to personnel, while still enabling a quick response to incidents or emergencies.

Safety and security

ICS incorporate safety features and protocols. They protect both equipment and operators. For example, they can include emergency shutdown systems, alarm notifications and access controls to prevent unauthorized access or tampering.

Fault detection and predictive maintenance

Monitoring the condition of equipment and identifying potential faults or maintenance needs enables proactive maintenance planning. It also reduces downtime and keeps costs down without increasing risk.

Scalability and flexibility

ICS are designed to handle large-scale systems and accommodate future expansions or modifications. They offer the flexibility to adapt to changing requirements, integrate new technologies, and support the growth of crucial infrastructure sectors.

Data collection and analysis

They are also used for generating vast amounts of data from sensors and equipment. This data can be collected, stored and analyzed to gain new insights, improve operations and support decision-making processes for continuous improvement.

All of these systems and processes are open to misuse by those with ill intentions. That’s why cyber security is such an important industry. Education plays a crucial role in building a successful career in cyber security. As the importance of protecting our infrastructure increases, so does the growing demand for skilled professionals with the knowledge and expertise to protect it from cyber threats.

The threat landscape

More and more of our critical infrastructure systems are becoming targets for cyber-attacks. Threats include nation states, criminal organizations and hacktivists. They may be seeking to exploit vulnerabilities in these systems to disrupt operations, steal sensitive information or cause physical damage.

With more advances in technology, it’s important to stay updated on how to protect ourselves and our businesses from potential threats.

Our infrastructure systems are key targets for cyber-attacks due to their importance. There are many examples of where cyber security has presented a huge risk for many different people and organizations across the globe. Three major examples are Stuxnet, the first known cyber weapon; the 2015 Ukrainian power grid attack, which highlighted the vulnerabilities of power grids; and the water treatment cyber-attack in Florida, in which an unauthorized user gained access to the facility’s system and attempted to increase the levels of sodium hydroxide (lye) in the water supply to reach dangerous levels.

In the case of the Floridian water attack, if the attempt had gone unnoticed, the outcome could have been serious, resulting in significant loss of life. With this in mind, it’s easy to imagine the potential risks of unauthorized access to critical infrastructure systems and the importance of robust cyber security measures.

The examples used above provide only a small sample of the attacks that have been attempted. Over the years, ransom attacks have become a common threat. These attacks cause problems by leveraging vulnerabilities in software updates. When services such as healthcare are targeted, lives are put at risk.

Why do people carry out cyber-attacks?

For most of us, it can be difficult to see why anyone would want to carry out a cyber-attack, especially when they can be so damaging. The motivations behind these attacks can vary. We cover some of them here.

Political or geopolitical

Nation states may target infrastructure as part of their strategic objectives and to gain an advantage over other countries. Attacks driven by political motivations are intended to disrupt the functioning of a nation and undermine its capabilities.

Financial gain

Criminal organizations engage in cyber-attacks with the main goal of making a profit. This includes ransomware attacks, where systems are encrypted and a ransom is demanded for their release, or stealing sensitive information for subsequent extortion or sale on the dark web.


Hacktivists usually target critical infrastructure to raise awareness about social or political causes. They tend to have extreme views and beliefs. This is demonstrated in their actions, which if successful, disrupt services, draw attention to certain issues, or make a political statement.


Nation states may target critical infrastructure to gather intelligence or steal sensitive information. This information can be used for various purposes, including economic espionage or gaining a competitive advantage.

These examples highlight the critical need for robust cyber security measures to protect our infrastructure systems from cyber-attacks. They highlight the importance of monitoring, vulnerability assessments, threat intelligence sharing, and proactive defense strategies to reduce the risks and potential consequences of such attacks.


ICS often have unique characteristics that can make them vulnerable to cyber-attacks. These include legacy systems with outdated software and firmware, poor network segmentation, a lack of authentication mechanisms, and limited cyber security awareness among staff. Here are some of the vulnerabilities and ways that the security around them can be enhanced.

Legacy systems and outdated software/firmware

Many ICS components, such as SCADA systems and PLC, were designed and implemented before the introduction of modern cyber security practices. This can result in outdated software and firmware that may contain known vulnerabilities. If updates are not readily available, compensating controls, such as network segmentation, can isolate critical components and minimize exposure.

Poor network segmentation

Inadequate network segmentation within ICS makes it easier for attackers to gain unauthorized access to critical systems. Implementing proper network segmentation helps contain potential intrusions and limit the impact of cyber-attacks. A defense-in-depth strategy, which includes multiple layers of security controls, should be adopted to increase the protection for network segmentation.

Lack of authentication mechanisms

Without the proper methods of authentication, unauthorized individuals or groups may gain access to ICS, compromising their integrity and functionality. Using strong authentication practices, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), helps verify the identity of users and devices. These might include security questions, fingerprint recognition or voice recognition. These can prevent unauthorized access and reduce the risk of credential theft or misuse. Policies that require regular password changes also contribute to stronger authentication practices.

Lack of awareness

Human error and a lack of cyber security awareness among staff members have a significant impact on security. Organizations should prioritize cyber security training and awareness programs for employees involved in critical infrastructure operations. This includes educating staff about common attack vectors, social engineering techniques and best practices for secure operations. Regular training and simulated phishing exercises help to raise awareness, adopt a cyber security culture, and empower employees to identify and report potential threats. While it might not be the main aspect of their role, it’s beneficial to the business and everyone who works there if employees speak up whenever they see a potential issue.

Inadequate physical security

Physical access to critical infrastructure components, such as control rooms or equipment, should be restricted to authorized personnel only. These are usually the people who have passed the relevant security checks. In a large organization, this is particularly important because the people passing through will include cleaners and housekeeping teams, clients, couriers and various other people who don’t need to access certain areas of the building. Implementing physical security measures, such as access control systems, surveillance cameras and restricted entry points, helps prevent unauthorized individuals from tampering with or compromising critical systems.

Continuous monitoring

Stringent monitoring and intrusion detection systems are crucial for the timely detection of potential cyber threats. Continuous monitoring of ICS enables organizations to identify strange behavior, detect potential intrusions and respond quickly. Intrusion detection systems, log analysis and security information and event management (SIEM) tools can play a vital role in detecting and alerting organizations to potential cyber threats.

Assessments and audits

Carrying out regular security assessments and audits will pinpoint vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Organizations should perform vulnerability scanning and risk assessments to uncover potential security gaps. These assessments can provide insights into the overall security posture and guide organizations in applying suitable improvements.

Incident response and recovery plans

Developing robust incident response and recovery plans specific to ICS is crucial. When organizations have clear procedures for detecting, responding to, and recovering from cyber incidents, it ensures smoother operations and fewer problems. This includes defining roles and responsibilities, establishing communication channels, and regularly testing the incident response plan through simulations and other exercises.

Consequences of attacks

By now, you probably have a good idea of some of the consequences of a successful cyber-attack on critical infrastructure. Attacks could lead to service disruptions, equipment damage, environmental disasters and even loss of life. The economic impact can be significant, including costs associated with recovery, legal liabilities and reputational damage. We explore these in a little more detail below.

Service disruptions

Cyber-attacks can disrupt the operation of critical infrastructure services, such as power grids, water treatment plants, transportation systems or healthcare facilities. These disruptions can lead to prolonged outages, making the delivery of essential services to communities impossible, and causing the public considerable inconvenience or hardship.

Equipment damage and operational impacts

Attacks targeting industrial control systems can cause physical damage. For instance, an attack on a manufacturing facility could result in machinery malfunctions or shutdowns, leading to production losses and costly repairs. For energy facilities, attacks on control systems can disrupt power generation or transmission, impacting a wide range of sectors and people’s way of life.

Environmental disasters

Some sectors handle materials such as oil and gas, water or chemicals. An attack on these systems can lead to environmental disasters, including oil spills, water contamination or chemical leaks. These incidents can have ongoing ecological consequences, affecting ecosystems, wildlife and public health.

Loss of life and a risk to public safety

For sectors such as healthcare, transportation and emergency services, cyber-attacks can have life-threatening consequences. Disruptions to medical equipment, transportation systems or emergency communication networks limit the delivery of medical care, emergency responses and evacuation procedures, potentially leading to injuries, or in extreme cases, loss of life.

Economic impact

The economic consequences of a cyber-attack can also be devastating. Organizations may face significant financial losses because of service disruptions, equipment damage and subsequent recovery efforts. Therefore, legal liabilities can arise from compromised data, breaches of regulatory compliance, or failure to provide essential services. The cost of investigations, remediation, legal proceedings and potential fines will further increase the financial impact. The reputation of organizations responsible for critical infrastructure can also suffer, resulting in customer mistrust, reduced investor confidence and long-term business repercussions.

National security implications

Critical infrastructure is a cornerstone of our nation’s security and stability. Successful cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure can have severe national security implications. They can undermine public trust, affect the functioning of government institutions, disrupt military operations, or compromise sensitive national defense systems. These consequences can weaken a nation’s overall security posture and have geopolitical ramifications.

Public-private collaboration

A collaborative approach is needed when enhancing the security of critical infrastructure systems. This tactic involves multiple stakeholders, from government bodies and regulatory agencies to private sector organizations and cyber security professionals. Collaboration is essential for effectively addressing complex and evolving cyber threats targeting critical infrastructure. Here’s how some of these different entities can contribute.

Government entities

Governments play a crucial role in setting regulations, standards and guidelines for critical infrastructure security. They establish policies that offer incentives for organizations that prioritize cyber security, and provide resources for threat intelligence sharing and incident response coordination.

Regulatory agencies

Regulatory agencies are responsible for enforcing compliance with cyber security standards and regulations in critical infrastructure sectors. They can conduct audits, assessments and inspections to ensure that organizations meet security requirements. Collaboration with regulatory agencies helps organizations stay up to date with the latest security guidelines, receive guidance on risk management, and address any compliance gaps.

Cyber security professionals

Cyber security professionals, including incident response teams, threat intelligence analysts and security researchers, play a vital role in securing critical infrastructure. Their expertise helps in identifying, analyzing and controlling cyber threats. They can actively participate in industry forums, collaborate on research projects, and share insights to enhance the understanding of evolving threats and effective countermeasures.

Overall, securing industrial control systems and critical infrastructure requires a comprehensive and proactive approach. This includes technical measures, greater awareness, policy frameworks and collaboration among stakeholders.