Protecting Oil and Gas Companies from Ransomware Threats: Strengthening Air-Gapped OT Networks

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In today’s interconnected world, the cybersecurity landscape has grown increasingly complex, especially for critical industries such as oil and gas. The rise of ransomware attacks targeting this sector has raised serious concerns about the security of their operational technology (OT) networks. Traditionally thought to be safe due to their air-gapped nature, OT networks are no longer as isolated as they once were. This blog explores the security concerns of oil and gas companies regarding ransomware attacks on their air-gapped OT networks and introduces the Silverfort Unified Identity Protection Platform as a comprehensive solution.

The Purdue Model and Air-Gapped Networks

The Purdue Enterprise Reference Architecture, commonly known as the Purdue model, is a widely used framework to organize and structure industrial control systems (ICS) environments. It consists of hierarchical levels, ranging from Level 0 (sensors and actuators) to Level 4 (business systems). The air-gapped OT network, which includes components like programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interfaces (HMIs), and engineering workstations, usually resides in Level 1 and Level 2 of this model. Historically, these networks were considered isolated from external threats due to their physical separation from the corporate IT network.

A New Reality: Erosion of Isolation and Increased Attack Surface

IT/OT Convergence and Third-party Access

The landscape has shifted dramatically with the convergence of IT and OT environments. Third-party contractors and service providers require routine access to OT networks for maintenance and support, creating a bridge between air-gapped networks and external systems. Routine file transfers between OT and IT networks for operational data, configuration files, and software updates further weaken the isolation.

The Active Directory SSO Shift

The transition from local logins to Active Directory Single Sign-On (SSO) in OT networks has streamlined user access. However, it has also exposed a significant vulnerability. Once an attacker penetrates the network, the shift to centralized credentials makes lateral movement easier, escalating the potential damage from a breach.

Leveraging Weaknesses for Ransomware Attacks

With the weakening of air-gapped networks, adversaries can capitalize on these vulnerabilities to infiltrate the OT network and plant ransomware payloads on critical assets like engineering workstations, HMIs, and databases. Once inside, attackers can exploit the network’s interconnectedness to rapidly spread the ransomware, leading to operational downtime, data loss, and significant financial losses.

The Challenge of Traditional MFA for Air-Gapped Networks

Dependency on Internet Connectivity

Traditional Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) solutions often rely on internet connectivity for verification, rendering them ineffective in air-gapped environments where constant network connection isn’t guaranteed. This dependence on connectivity creates a gap in security.

Agent Dependencies

Traditional MFA solutions often necessitate the deployment of agents on devices, a task that’s not always feasible in OT environments. The presence of legacy systems and concerns about device stability hinder the deployment of these agents, allowing attackers to exploit gaps.

Silverfort MFA: Hardware Token MFA with no Agents Required

The Silverfort Unified Identity Protection Platform offers a robust solution to address these challenges and secure air-gapped OT networks effectively:

Direct Integration with Active Directory

Silverfort’s direct integration with Active Directory eliminates the need for agents or proxies, ensuring seamless authentication without compromising security. This approach simplifies the authentication process and enhances the overall security posture.

Rule-based and Risk-based MFA for Secure Third-party Contractors Access

Silverfort’s MFA capabilities allow organizations to enforce rule-based and risk-based authentication for third-party contractors and service providers. This ensures that only authorized personnel can access the network and significantly reduces the attack surface.

FIDO2 Token Support to Prevent Lateral Movement

Silverfort’s support for FIDO2 tokens adds an extra layer of protection against lateral movement within the OT network. By requiring strong authentication for every access attempt, even if an attacker gains initial access, their ability to move laterally and propagate ransomware is severely limited. Learn more on Silverfort protection for air-gapped networks here.

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