Virtually overnight, cyber threats have morphed from the work of lone hackers trying to break into computer systems, often just for the challenge, into a daily, massive bombardment of entire organizations by sophisticated operatives for much higher stakes.
While different strategies and technologies have been deployed in an attempt to counter this new threat level, major hacks have continued to occur, periodically revealing the sheer scale of cyber loopholes. That is, until the blockchain revolution.
Making Today’s Cyber World Work Safely
Revolution is not too brash a description. Today’s world has become interconnected beyond what could have been imagined just a few years ago. Not only is every machine - including robots, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), sensors, cameras and physical access control systems – developing a cyber aspect, but machines are cooperating with one another – lighting systems cooperating with elevators to save power in a building, adjacent substations cooperating automatically to fix an outage in the electrical grid, or entry-badge systems being used as a second authentication factor when reprogramming a PLC.
From building management to industrial operations to the energy industry, the security of machines and hard assets is converging with cybersecurity. Authentication and security for cyber-physical machines requires in-field digital security enforcement. In other words, security now needs to work where the machines are. The challenge we face? Not only do we need to protect each machine, but we need to protect the interactions between different machines and software apps as well.
Blockchain Driving Unparalleled Security
Traditional cybersecurity solutions were not designed to handle the scope or complexity of these new networks of interconnected, cooperating machines. A new solution, one that is capable of comprehensively enabling in-field cybersecurity, is needed. One of the most promising technologies for enabling this enforcement is blockchain.
While gaining its prominence in the financial markets by way of cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin), as a technology, blockchain is well suited to fending off cyberattacks. Blockchain is a distributed fabric of nodes that communicate with each other to form mutual consensus – and protection. In other words, if a few nodes are attacked by a cybercriminal in an attempt to infiltrate a network or organization, the other nodes will utilize consensus to recognize the malicious actor and unusual activity for what they are, effectively locking out the compromised nodes. Blockchain, then, uses a “strength in numbers” strategy to provide tamperproof replication and redundancy. In practical terms, this means that attackers may defeat the platoon but cannot defeat the entire cybersecurity army.
With blockchain’s tamperproof multi-node replication, industrial operations – and the information required to run them – are no longer left unprotected or dependent on a single vulnerable system. Rather, industrial operations’ cyber protection becomes much more distributed and scalable. This means that security policies – whether it’s rotating passwords on flow controllers once weekly or allowing only authorized personnel with specialized certifications to access specific controllers – can be defined centrally and then automatically replicated out to the field, where they will be tamperproofed and enforced by the blockchain nodes.
Because it forms a self-protecting fabric in the field, blockchain has no single point of failure. No unauthorized change in configuration, whether malicious or accidental, can become the entry point through which the rest of the network is infected by malware. And by providing industrial organizations with a trusted and secure cooperation medium, blockchain enables the foundation through which people and machines can cooperate securely in the field, critical in today’s world of enriched interactions.
Cyber threats are not merely a threat of the future or for niche industries – they’re happening everywhere and all the time. Recently, for example, forensic analysis discovered Russian malware inside the U.S. electrical grid, control systems, and substations. Large-scale or small-scale, cyberattacks will continue – whether for ransom, geopolitical purposes, or catastrophic disruption – with attacks aiming to start small before spreading across entire field networks. Designed specifically to protect machines, people, and the interactions between them, blockchain stands in the face of these cyber threats and offers a tangible tamperproof cybersecurity solution for sophisticated operations today and tomorrow.
How to Get Started
There are any number of resources online for learning more about blockchain. For instance:
- “Blockchain in Cybersecurity” Infosecurity Magazine (blockchain security introduction)
- “Blockchain Business Benefits” Forbes (general blockchain introduction)
As well as resources that dive deeper into practical applications:
- “Benefits of Blockchain” Oilfield Technology, page 63
- “Blockchain Smart Electric Meter Market Trends” Smart Energy International
And, of course, a wealth of deeper technical resources, such as:
- “Technology” Coursera
The next step is to work with other stakeholders – IT, Operations, the cybersecurity team and suitable vendors should all be involved – and identify a small-scale real-world project to kick things off.
Securing remote role-based access to operational machines, making digital identities managed and secure and eliminating unmanaged passwords in the field, can often provide a good initial project.
With so many opportunities for operational and security improvements in today's highly connected and automated world, the important thing is to get started.
This article originally ran in Today’s Cybersecurity Leader, a monthly cybersecurity-focused eNewsletter for security end users, brought to you by Security magazine. Subscribe here.