What is Air-Gapped Network ?

Air-gapped networks are internal networks completely isolated from the cloud or other external networks. In most cases, this is due to physical security concerns or a strong need for data confidentiality. Some common examples of air-gapped networks include various national security actors such as defense, governments, and military bodies, as well as critical infrastructure entities that provide energy, water utilities, and other enabling services.

A network that is air-gapped represents the pinnacle of cybersecurity security. In order to protect themselves against cyber threats, these networks are physically isolated from external connections. The concept of an air-gapped network involves keeping sensitive systems or data completely disconnected from the internet or any other network, ensuring an unparalleled level of protection.

Importance of air-gapped networks in cybersecurity

The importance of air-gapped networks in cybersecurity cannot be overstated. They serve as a last line of defense against sophisticated attacks, preventing unauthorized access, data exfiltration, and remote exploitation of critical assets. By eliminating connectivity, air-gapped networks reduce the attack surface, making it extremely difficult for malicious actors to penetrate the system.

Many industries utilize air-gapped networks to secure their data and resources. Including sectors such as government, defense, finance, healthcare, and critical infrastructure, safeguarding classified data, intellectual property, and sensitive operations. Providing an additional layer of protection to highly valuable assets could have serious consequences if they were compromised.

What is an Air-Gap?

An air-gap is a complete separation between a network or computer and any external connections, including the public internet. As a result of this isolation, assets are protected from malicious cyber activities. Air-gapped networks originated from the realization that no matter how robust an online security system might be, there will always be security gaps that can be exploited. By physically isolating critical systems, air-gapping provides an additional layer of defense against potential attacks.

The concept of air-gapping dates back to the earliest days of computing, when systems were standalone and not interconnected. In recent years, however, it has gained prominence as a security measure due to the rise of cyber threats and the realization that no online security system can provide total protection. As a result of the need to protect sensitive information and critical infrastructure from increasingly sophisticated attacks, air-gapped computers and networks have been widely adopted.

Key principles behind air-gapped networks

  1. Physical isolation

Air-gapped networks are based on the principle of physical isolation. In order to minimize the risk of unauthorized access, critical systems should be physically separated from external networks. A number of methods can be used to achieve this isolation, including physical separation, secure facilities, and limiting physical access to the systems.

  1. Restricted connectivity

Air-gapped networks impose strict security controls on network connectivity to minimize the number of potential attack vectors. These controls limit the number of entry points and restrict network access to only authorized individuals or systems. By reducing the amount of connectivity, the attack surface is significantly reduced, making it harder for malicious actors to compromise the network..

  1. Unidirectional data flow

The principle of unidirectional data flow is a critical component of air-gapped networks. As a result, data can only flow in one direction, typically from a trusted network to the air-gapped system. By doing so, data exfiltration or unauthorized communication from the isolated network is prevented. Techniques such as data diodes, which allow data to flow in one direction only, are commonly employed to enforce unidirectional data transfer.

Who uses air-gapped networks?

Air-gapped networks are typically utilized by various organizations and industries that prioritize the security and protection of their sensitive information. Here are some examples of entities that commonly use air-gapped networks:

  • Government and Defense Agencies: Government agencies, intelligence organizations, and military institutions often rely on air-gapped networks to safeguard classified information, state secrets, and sensitive defense systems. These networks ensure that critical data remains isolated and inaccessible to unauthorized individuals or foreign adversaries.
  • Financial Institutions: Banks, financial organizations, and stock exchanges employ air-gapped networks to protect sensitive financial data, transactional systems, and customer information. These networks prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, and fraudulent activities, maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of financial computer systems.
  • Healthcare Industry: Hospitals, medical research facilities, and healthcare organizations utilize air-gapped networks to secure medical equipment, patient records, medical research data, and other sensitive healthcare information. These networks ensure compliance with privacy regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and protect against unauthorized access or tampering with sensitive medical data.
  • Energy and Utility Sector: Critical infrastructure, including power plants, water treatment facilities, nuclear power plants, and transportation systems, often rely on air-gapped networks to secure their industrial control systems and operational data. By keeping these networks physically isolated, potential threats are mitigated, preventing unauthorized access and potential disruptions to essential services.
  • Research and Development Institutions: Organizations involved in advanced research and development, such as aerospace, defense contractors, and scientific institutions, utilize air-gapped networks to protect intellectual property, confidential research data, and proprietary information. These networks prevent industrial espionage and safeguard valuable innovations.
  • Legal and Law Enforcement Agencies: Legal firms, law enforcement agencies, and court systems employ air-gapped networks to protect sensitive case files, confidential client information, and classified legal documents. By isolating these networks, unauthorized access and tampering of crucial legal data are mitigated.
  • High-Security Facilities: Highly secure environments such as data centers, server farms, and top-secret research facilities utilize air-gapped networks to create robust security perimeters. These networks ensure that critical infrastructure, data repositories, and communication systems remain impervious to external threats.

What are the advantages of air-gapped networks?

Air-gapped networks offer several advantages that make them an attractive security measure for organizations, such as:

  • Enhanced Security: The primary advantage of air-gapped networks is their superior security. By physically isolating critical systems and data from external networks, they provide an additional layer of security against cyber threats. With no direct or indirect connectivity, it becomes exceedingly difficult for attackers to breach the network or compromise sensitive information.
  • Protection against Targeted Attacks: Air-gapped networks are especially effective in protecting against targeted attacks, where adversaries meticulously plan and execute sophisticated intrusion techniques. Since these networks are not directly accessible from the internet, they significantly reduce the attack surface and thwart attempts to exploit security gaps in network infrastructure or software.
  • Safeguarding Sensitive Information: Air-gapped networks are crucial for safeguarding sensitive and confidential information. They are widely used in industries such as government, defense, finance, and healthcare, where the integrity and confidentiality of data are paramount. By keeping critical data physically isolated, air-gapped networks prevent unauthorized access and maintain the privacy of sensitive information.
  • Limiting Spread of Malware: Air-gapped networks act as a barrier against the spread of malware and other malicious software. Without direct connectivity, it becomes challenging for malware to propagate from external sources to the isolated network. This helps prevent widespread infections and reduces the risk of data loss or system compromise from ransomware.
  • Reducing Vulnerabilities: By removing external connectivity, air-gapped networks reduce the potential attack vectors and vulnerabilities that can be exploited by cybercriminals. Since there are no direct network interfaces, components, or software exposed to external threats, the risk of system compromise or unauthorized access is significantly diminished.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Air-gapped networks often play a crucial role in meeting regulatory requirements for data protection, privacy, and cyber insurance. Industries such as finance and healthcare have stringent regulations in place, and utilizing air-gapped networks helps organizations comply with these standards and demonstrate their commitment to safeguarding sensitive information.
  • Physical Security: Air-gapped networks rely on physical security measures to maintain the integrity of the network. This includes secure facilities, controlled access to equipment, and surveillance systems. By ensuring that only authorized personnel have physical access to the network, the risk of physical tampering or unauthorized modifications is minimized.

What are the downsides of air-gapped networks?

While air-gapped networks offer robust security advantages, they also come with some downsides and challenges, so it is important for organizations to carefully evaluate the benefits and downsides of air-gapped networks in their specific context.

Balancing security needs, operational requirements, and usability considerations is crucial in determining the most appropriate cybersecurity measures for the organization. In some cases, a hybrid approach combining air-gapped networks with other security measures may be considered to address specific challenges and strike a balance between security and functionality.

Here are a few considerations:

  • Operational Complexity: Implementing and managing an air-gapped network can be very complex and resource-intensive. It requires additional infrastructure, specialized hardware, and careful planning to ensure proper physical isolation and restricted connectivity. Organizations must allocate enough resources for network setup, maintenance, and ongoing monitoring.
  • Limited Functionality: The very nature of air-gapped networks, with their lack of connectivity, can limit the functionality and convenience of certain operations. For example, transferring data between the air-gapped network and external systems may require manual processes, such as using removable media or physically connecting devices. This can slow down workflows and introduce additional steps that need to be carefully managed.
  • Insider Threats: While air-gapped networks provide protection against external cyber threats, they are not immune to insider threats. Authorized individuals with physical access to the network can still pose a risk. Malicious insiders or unintentional mistakes by employees can potentially compromise the security of the air-gapped network. Strict access controls, monitoring, and security awareness training are crucial to mitigate these risks.
  • Malware Transmission: Air-gapped networks are not invulnerable to malware. Although direct internet connectivity is absent, malware can still be introduced through physical media, such as USB drives or external storage devices, which may be used for data transfer. Malicious software can propagate within the network if introduced through such means, requiring strict security protocols and comprehensive scanning measures to prevent infections.
  • Usability Challenges: The physical isolation and restricted connectivity of air-gapped networks can present usability challenges. It may be cumbersome to access and update software, apply security patches, or implement system updates. Additionally, the lack of direct internet access may limit the ability to utilize cloud services, access online resources, or benefit from real-time threat intelligence.
  • Maintenance and Updates: Air-gapped networks require careful maintenance and regular updates to ensure the continued security and functionality of the network. This includes applying security patches, updating software, and conducting periodic audits. Maintaining the integrity of the air-gapped environment and ensuring it remains secure can be resource-intensive and time-consuming.

Can air-gapped networks be breached?

While air-gapped networks are designed to provide a high level of security and make it extremely challenging for external threats to breach the network, it is important to recognize that no security measure is entirely bulletproof. While the physical isolation and restricted connectivity of air-gapped networks significantly reduce the risk of cyber attacks, there are still potential ways in which they can be breached:

  1. Lateral Movement: Once attackers have established an initial foothold in the air-gapped network, they can move laterally across the network using stolen credentials  to expand their presence and increase the attack’s impact. In 2017, the infamous NotPetya attack performed such lateral movement in both standard IT networks as well as air-gapped OT networks.
  2. Insider Threats: One of the primary concerns for air-gapped networks is the insider threat. Malicious insiders who have authorized physical access to the network may intentionally breach the security measures. They can introduce malware or compromise the network’s integrity, potentially bypassing security protocols and exposing sensitive information.
  3. Social Engineering: Air-gapped networks are not immune to social engineering attacks. Attackers may attempt to manipulate authorized employees with physical access to the network, tricking them into compromising the security measures. For example, an attacker could pose as a trusted individual or exploit human vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to the network.
  4. Malware Introduction through Physical Media: While air-gapped networks are disconnected from external networks, they can still be vulnerable to malware introduced through physical media, such as USB drives or external storage devices. If such media is connected to the air-gapped network without proper scanning or security measures, malware can potentially infect the network.
  5. Side-Channel Attacks: Sophisticated attackers may employ side-channel attacks to gather information from air-gapped networks. These attacks exploit unintended information leakage, such as electromagnetic radiation, acoustic signals, or power fluctuations, to gather data and potentially breach the network.
  6. Human Error: Human error can also lead to inadvertent breaches of air-gapped networks. For example, an authorized individual may mistakenly connect an unauthorized device or transfer sensitive information to an unsecured external system, inadvertently compromising the security of the network.

Real-World Examples of Air-Gapped Breaches

While air-gapped networks are generally considered highly secure, there have been a few notable instances where such networks were breached or compromised. Here are a few real-world examples:

Stuxnet: One of the most famous instances of an air-gapped network breach is the Stuxnet worm. Discovered in 2010, Stuxnet targeted Iranian nuclear facilities. It was designed to exploit vulnerabilities in air-gapped networks by spreading through infected USB drives. Once inside the air-gapped network, Stuxnet disrupted the operation of centrifuges used in Iran’s uranium enrichment process.

The Equation Group: The Equation Group, a highly sophisticated cyber espionage group attributed to the United States, reportedly targeted air-gapped networks using a variety of techniques. One of their methods involved using malware known as “EquationDrug” to bridge the air gap. It would infect systems connected to the air-gapped network and act as a covert channel for transmitting data to the attackers.

Hacking Team: In 2015, the Italian surveillance software company Hacking Team experienced a breach that exposed a significant amount of sensitive data, including information about their clients and their tools. It was discovered that the Hacking Team used an air-gapped network to protect their source code and sensitive information. However, the breach was reportedly achieved through social engineering and the compromise of authorized personnel, allowing attackers to gain access to the air-gapped network.

ShadowBrokers: The ShadowBrokers hacking group gained notoriety in 2016 when they leaked a significant amount of classified hacking tools allegedly belonging to the National Security Agency (NSA). Among the leaked tools were exploits designed to breach air-gapped networks. These tools targeted vulnerabilities in various operating systems and network protocols, demonstrating the potential for breaching supposedly secure environments.

Vault 7: In 2017, WikiLeaks released a series of documents known as “Vault 7” that exposed the hacking capabilities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The leaked documents revealed that the CIA possessed tools and techniques capable of bypassing air-gapped networks. One such tool, called “Brutal Kangaroo,” allowed the CIA to infect air-gapped networks by leveraging removable media such as USB drives to propagate malware.

NotPetya: In 2017, the NotPetya ransomware attack caused widespread havoc, primarily targeting Ukrainian organizations. NotPetya infected systems by exploiting a vulnerability in a popular accounting software. Once inside a network, it spread rapidly, even to air-gapped systems, by abusing the Windows Management Instrumentation Command-line (WMIC) functionality and stealing administrative credentials. NotPetya’s ability to propagate within air-gapped networks demonstrated the potential for lateral movement and infection beyond traditional network boundaries.

These breaches underscore the evolving capabilities and techniques of cyber attackers. They highlight the importance of continuous monitoring, threat intelligence, and adopting robust security measures, even within air-gapped environments. Organizations must remain vigilant and regularly update their security protocols to mitigate the risks associated with breaches of air-gapped networks.

How can you protect air-gapped networks?

Protecting air-gapped networks requires a multi-layered approach that combines physical, technical, and operational security measures. It requires ongoing vigilance, regular updates, and a proactive approach to security, so it is crucial to stay informed about emerging threats, keep abreast of security best practices, and adapt security measures as needed to ensure the continued protection of the network.

Here are several key strategies to enhance the protection of air-gapped networks:

Implement Multi-factor Authentication

  • Overcoming the Built-In Security Restraints: Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is the ultimate solution against attacks that utilize compromised credentials to access targeted resources such as account takeovers and lateral movement. However, to be effective in an air-gapped network, an MFA solution must meet several criteria, such as being able to fully function without relying on internet connectivity and not requiring the deployment of agents on the machines it protects
  • Hardware Token Support: In addition, the common practice in air-gapped networks is to use physical hardware security tokens in place of the standard mobile devices that require internet connectivity. This consideration adds another requirement, to be able to utilize a hardware token to provide the second authentication factor.

Physical Security

  • Secure Facility: Maintain a physically secure environment by limiting access to the network’s location through measures such as access controls, security guards, surveillance systems, and intrusion detection systems.
  • Equipment Protection: Safeguard the physical equipment, including servers, workstations, and networking devices, from unauthorized access, tampering, or theft.

Network Segmentation

  • Isolate Critical Systems: Segment the air-gapped network from non-critical systems to further minimize the attack surface and limit the potential impact of a breach.
  • Separate Network Management: Implement a separate management network for administering the air-gapped network to prevent unauthorized access and mitigate the risk of insider threats.

Secure Data Transfer

  • Controlled Media Usage: Establish strict protocols for transferring data to and from the air-gapped network using authorized and properly scanned removable media. Regularly scan and sanitize all media to prevent malware introduction.
  • Data Diodes: Consider utilizing data diodes or other one-way transfer mechanisms to ensure unidirectional data flow, allowing data to move securely from trusted networks to the air-gapped network while preventing any outbound data flow.

Endpoint Protection

  • Antivirus and Malware Protection: Deploy robust antivirus and anti-malware solutions on all systems within the air-gapped network. Regularly update the software and implement real-time scanning to detect and mitigate potential threats.
  • Host-Based Firewalls: Utilize host-based firewalls to control network traffic and prevent unauthorized communication attempts.

Security Awareness and Training

  • Educate Authorized Personnel: Provide comprehensive security awareness training to individuals with access to the air-gapped network. This training should cover topics such as social engineering, phishing attacks, physical security best practices, and the importance of following established protocols.

Monitoring and Auditing

  • Network Monitoring: Implement robust monitoring systems to detect any anomalies or suspicious activities within the air-gapped network. This includes monitoring network traffic, system logs, and user activities.
  • Regular Security Audits: Conduct periodic security audits to assess the effectiveness of security measures, identify vulnerabilities, and ensure compliance with established policies and procedures.

Incident Response

  • Develop an incident response plan specifically tailored for air-gapped networks. Define procedures for detecting, investigating, and responding to security incidents promptly and effectively.