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Critical infrastructure requires secure remote access solutions

The hack of a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida demonstrated the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to cyber threats. Critical infrastructure and other organizations require secure, scalable remote access solutions, such as those provided by Secure Access Service Edge (SASE).

The Oldsmar Water Treatment Plant hack underscores access control issues

The hack of the water treatment plant made the news as one of the first times that a cybercriminal with access to critical infrastructure actually attempted to carry out an attack. In the past, most “attacks” on critical infrastructure were proof of capabilities, with attackers gaining access to prove that they could or to prepare for future attacks.

In the case of the Oldsmar water treatment plant, an attacker took advantage of poor remote access security. The plant was accustomed to supervisors using TeamViewer to remotely monitor and control employees’ computers. This TeamViewer account had a shared password for everyone, systems were not protected by a firewall, and multiple sets of user credentials associated with the plant were exposed in data breaches.

The attacker logged into the TeamViewer account and controlled an employee’s machine over several hours. Initially, the employee believed that the remote access was by a supervisor but became suspicious when it was used to change the chemical levels in the water, essentially turning it into lye.

The plant had fail-safes in place, so the employee was able to reverse the changes before the water was contaminated. However, if the employee had not detected and responded to the remote access, anyone drinking the water would likely have become ill.

Secure remote access solutions are now “critical infrastructure”

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven many organizations to introduce telework programs. As employees cannot safely work from the office, companies need to support working from home.

The same is true for critical infrastructure employees, and these organizations often have an even greater need to work remotely. Critical infrastructure commonly has geographically distributed sites (electrical substations, etc.) that must be monitored and managed from a central office. Whether employees are working from this office or from their homes, they still need to be able to access these systems remotely over the Internet.

This makes secure remote access vital for the operation and security of critical infrastructure. However, the solution in place at the Oldsmar water treatment facility – TeamViewer with a shared password and no firewall – is not an adequate solution.

Critical infrastructure – and any organization supporting remote work – requires a solution that provides:

  • Secure connectivity: A connection between a remote worker and a corporate resource commonly carries sensitive information. A secure remote access solution must be able to protect the confidentiality and integrity of this data flowing over the public Internet.
  • Access control: Secure remote access solutions should only be accessible to legitimate users, and legitimate users should only have access to the resources required to do their jobs. Systems like the TeamViewer setup used by Oldsmar place the organization at risk.
  • Stability and reliability: As organizations become more reliant on remote access, the solutions that provide it need to be resilient, especially in critical infrastructure. This requires solutions that avoid single points of failure – like VPN endpoints – that could go down due to a natural disaster or cyberattack.

SASE provides secure, scalable remote access

As organizations develop strategies for supporting and securing their remote workforces, SASE is the logical solution to their secure remote access needs. SASE provides a number of benefits for secure remote access, including:

  • Geographic distribution: SASE is implemented as virtualized, cloud-based solutions. This removes the need to deploy physical appliances and dramatically expands the geographic footprint of the company’s network, making it easier to support cloud-based infrastructure, satellite sites, and remote workers.
  • Integrated security: No organization should have publicly-accessible infrastructure that is not protected by a firewall. SASE solutions incorporate a fully-integrated security stack, providing comprehensive protection to both users and the corporate resources that they access.
  • Zero trust network access: SASE includes built-in zero trust network access (ZTNA). This means that connection requests are permitted or denied on a case-by-case basis determined by role-based access controls. This helps to block unauthorized access like the one in the Oldsmar water treatment plant hack.
  • Optimized network routing: A SASE network optimally routes traffic between the source and destination SASE endpoints. This helps to ensure high network performance and minimizes the impact on latency-sensitive applications.
  • Scalability and reliability: SASE is deployed as a web of standalone appliances, each of which has fully-integrated network and security functionality. If one SASE appliance is offline, the network can adapt (unlike with VPN-based remote access).

The Oldsmar water treatment plant hack demonstrates the potential impacts of failing to implement effective secure remote access solutions. As remote access continues to be vital to maintaining business operations, organizations must move away from insecure solutions like the one that made the Oldsmar hack possible.