Gas stations and beyond: why cybersecurity is a top priority for industrial infrastructure

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Written By Chris Connell, Managing Director for Asia Pacific at Kaspersky

Industrial Control Systems (ICS) demand specific approaches to cybersecurity due to their complex structure, connected devices with different capabilities, software and operating systems, and critical functions. And this isn’t just a theory.

Something as common as a gas station has all the attributes of an ICS, such as connected equipment including pumps and tanks, controllers, a management system, a payment system, as well as connection to the corporate network, third-party service systems, and the internet. Just like any industrial facility, it has cybersecurity issues that companies should consider, to avoid disruptions that may affect the business, its employees, and the general public. This happened recently when gas stations in Iran were shut down because of a targeted attack.

This look through an ICS infrastructure is based on our research carried out at the end of 2020. It included the analysis of a modern gas station’s automation software architecture, a typical infrastructure, and the communications inside it. This allowed us to classify potential attack vectors and their impact on the fuel station’s network.

At a gas station

Imagine you’re driving your car and you need to fill it. You stop at a gas station, put the dispenser in the tank, and go to the convenience store to pay for the fuel. Once inside, the fresh coffee smells nice, you take some snacks for the road, complete your purchase and return to your vehicle.

To deliver the fuel to your tank, several systems should work: the back-office system and point of sales are used for payments and management functions. They are connected to the forecourt controller (FCC). This is the area with pumps outside the convenience store where customers park their cars to fill up. It is equipped with many systems such as a pump control, an automatic tank gauge (ATG), payment systems, etc. The FCC is the main device that controls fuel distribution, so when you pay through a cashier, the FCC commands the pump to supply it to your car so you can continue your journey.

Information about operations, the amount of fuel sold and available is transmitted to the management system locally and then to a head office that accumulates information from all stations.

Where are the problems?

Through our research, we managed to classify what could go wrong in this process. There are several potential operational technology (OT) and IT security issues that can affect the work of the station.

The first group of risks involves potential remote access from external networks. Just like many industrial systems today, the gas station employs solutions that are connected to public services through the internet, these include cloud banking systems or specialised fleet management systems. Remote access to the fuel station allows further malicious actions inside the network.

This was a real case described in one of Kaspersky’s studies. At the gas station, fuel management software was used to track the amount stored, set the price, and process payments. The system was connected to the internet and had vulnerabilities that allowed remote admin access with the ability to even change the fuel price.

There are also suppliers and service companies that have access to some parts of the infrastructure. Compromising these third parties may open doors to the target system for attackers. In fact, this type of threat is of great concern for companies of any size profile: a third (32%) of large organizations suffered attacks involving data shared with suppliers. What’s more, the financial impact of such incidents on enterprises is the highest across all types of attacks in 2021.

Another set of risks involves network and device issues that may potentially lead to the disruption of fuel station services or direct financial impact. Attacks can come from remote networks or by connecting to wireless networks or wired network ports available onsite.

Then, if the network is not segmented, the attack can spread from entry points such as secondary equipment in a shop and office workstations to critical components such as fuel management controls. The usage of unencrypted protocols (HTTP, CDP, FTP, Telnet, etc.) in the gas station network may allow adversaries to disclose sensitive information for further attack development.

Another critical but evergreen problem is vulnerabilities or security flaws in the fuel controller, POS terminals, and network equipment, as well as corporate endpoints and applications. In 2015, 5,800 automatic tank gauges (ATGs) were found to be exposed to unauthorized access from the internet because of a lack of password protection on a serial port. ATG is an electronic component placed in the tank that monitors the level of fuel and checks if it is leaking fluid. And through this serial port, the ATG can be programmed. If the signal it transfers is not correct, the operator won’t get an alert about any deviation. Figures from 2015 also suggested that at the time, most systems were in gas stations in the US and represented 3% of those used in the country. By compromising such critical systems as automatic tank gauges, criminals can unlock options for fraud or even physical damage.

It is also important to verify all workstations used on the forecourt such as points of sale, back-office systems, fuel controllers or payment terminals, as well as their configuration and even access to USB ports. For example, a lack of encryption or incompliancy to the PCI DSS standard in a payment system can contribute to the risk of an attack. For a fuel controller, it is also important to check industrial protocols. Lack of source authentication or integrity control may give adversaries, performing a man-in-the-middle attack, the opportunity to intercept data and manipulate station controllers.

Another point to manage is wireless gateways and reader units. A security assessment should be performed to identify insecure industrial protocols, the possibility of jamming and spoofing attacks.

How to improve

There are major security measures that should help increase the overall level of operational technology infrastructure. It is applicable to fuel stations but is no less relevant to any industrial network.

Network security: Purpose-based network segmentation enhances overall security and minimizes the surface of a possible attack. The segment of the network that has access to untrusted parts of it, such as corporate IT, should also be separated and protected with appropriate enterprise-grade protection software.

Passive OT network monitoring is essential for asset and communication inventory and detection of intrusions before they affect the technological process. Monitoring data also helps IT security teams to analyze events and consider hardening measures.

Access control: This should include restricting physical and logical access to the automation and control system. Security measures for remote access control for service companies will help to avoid third-party incidents.

Endpoint protection: It is important to implement specialized industrial-grade security software for OT hosts and servers. Ensure that the software is approved by the automation vendor and compatible with its solutions. This should help to avoid a situation where the protection product affects operation functions.

Security management: A system for centralized security event collection and protection software policy management should be implemented. It is also important that the solution allows vulnerability and patch management. If the system can be integrated with Security Information and Event Management (SIEM), that is a ‘nice to have’ option for organizations that plan to upgrade their protection level. Real-time continuous monitoring and endpoint data collection with rules-based response and analysis capabilities will help to further improve protection from advanced attacks.

A more fundamental approach that involves long-term measures is also important to improve the overall cybersecurity posture. This means adhering to industry standards for information security controls such as IEC 62443, NIST, NERC CIP, and so on. The organization should also conduct penetration testing or security analysis regularly, to identify vulnerabilities and information security problems before they are exploited by someone. And then, of course, follow all recommended measures to fix them properly.

Going deeper, there are specific requirements for companies with different levels of protection. But the measures listed above are essential to fill most cybersecurity gaps. Be it a fuel station, refinery, or giant car manufacturer, the basic principles of OT and IT protection should allow the company to build a reliable cybersecurity system and develop it according to their needs. This will provide a great foundation for satisfied business owners and happy clients.