It has become clear industrial control systems (ICS) lack essential defenses. In the face of an ever-evolving threat landscape, cyber threat intelligence (CTI) is one of the most promising solutions. Can industry professionals better defend critical infrastructure if they leverage threat intelligence’s best practices?
Why CTI Is Essential for ICS Security
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has repeatedly issued warnings about ICS vulnerabilities. The agency has gone as far as to say ICS security is among its top priorities moving forward. They even publish advisories to highlight existing security flaws.
Historically, ICS has not been particularly vulnerable to cyber threats because they were relatively isolated. Now, their dependence on internet-connected systems and third-party tools — prompted by efficiency and cost-saving efforts — has exposed them to threat actors.
Since critical infrastructure depends on ICS, they have become high-value targets — and cyber attacks are growing increasingly common. Unfortunately, cybersecurity experts have discovered threat actors can exploit most vulnerabilities remotely using unsophisticated techniques.
Threat actors can easily bypass security controls and escalate privileges, enabling them to disrupt services, steal data and temporarily crash systems. They can even remotely control equipment, damaging it. For example, they can cause permanent data loss by triggering voltage spikes and sags. This puts critical infrastructure at risk.
The Role of CTI in ICS Security
There are three primary types of threat intelligence, with tactical being the first. It leverages cyber attack-related observations to identify attackers’ goals. While they typically target ICS for its connection to critical infrastructure, overgeneralization should be avoided. Uncovering a threat actor’s objectives improves incident response.
Strategic threat intelligence is the second variant. It involves coordinated efforts to gain a broader understanding of the threat landscape. ICS cybersecurity specialists leverage it to make more informed infrastructure investments and risk management decisions.
The last type of threat intelligence is operational. It is more technical than the other two, prioritizing threat contextualization. Here, the goal is to improve detection and prevention techniques to streamline incident response.
How CTI Defends Against ICS Cyber Threats
After CTI feeds collect data from appropriate sources, processing and analysis occur. Once cybersecurity teams have high-quality information, they integrate and strategize. Categorizing ICS threats by severity, frequency and relevancy enables them to identify and address indicators of compromise (IOCs).
In the energy sector, ICS controls electricity generation, transmission and distribution. Critical infrastructure like fuel production and power grids rely on these systems to function. CTI helps cybersecurity teams differentiate and identify relevant threats, improving security.
One of the main ways CTI defends against cyber threats in the energy sector is through insight. While ICS types experience similar attacks from the same threat actors, methods and techniques noticeably differ. As a result, the actionable understanding professionals gain from real-time data streams is vital.
CTI also offers threat contextualization. When cybersecurity teams compare their data feeds to their logs and alerts, they gain a greater understanding of attackers’ motivations. Additionally, they can differentiate between relevant and irrelevant threats. As a result, they can better prioritize vulnerabilities and make every action more meaningful.
Cybersecurity professionals can leverage CTI to defend against energy-sector ICS threats in numerous ways. For example, they can use it to improve threat hunting because it enables them to prioritize IOCs and identify dangers. Most security management systems and techniques improve with relevant, actionable data.
How to Effectively Implement CTI for ICS Security
Strategically integrating data feeds into operations gives cybersecurity teams a better chance of successfully implementing CTI for energy-sector ICS security. Currently, many fail in this aspect because their sourcing processes are ineffective.
While most security professionals understand the importance of data relevancy, many do not have the means to aggregate information from high-quality sources. Considering roughly 94 zettabytes of data existed in 2023, their inability to differentiate relevant and irrelevant details is understandable. However, proper collection techniques are vital for extracting meaningful, actionable insights.
Another hurdle many cybersecurity teams are facing is skill scarcity. According to a global survey, a staggering 44% of chief information officers experienced labor shortages in 2021. Since there are not enough professionals specializing in ICS, effective CTI implementation becomes more challenging.
What does successful CTI implementation look like? It typically involves leveraging threat intelligence’s best practices. Strategically sourcing, integrating and disseminating data increases the chances of a successful defense against cyber threats in the energy sector.
Threat Intelligence’s Best Practices for Implementation
Cybersecurity teams have a better chance of protecting ICS — and, by extension, critical infrastructure — if they follow threat intelligence’s best practices. A coordinated, strategic response makes data aggregated by CTI feeds more useful.
1. Extract Meaningful Insights With TIP
Of course, CTI feeds are only effective if the data is authentic, complete and relevant. Since a threat intelligence platform (TIP) automatically structures incoming information, leveraging one is a wise approach.
2. Share Threat Intelligence With Others
According to CISA, collaboration is the only way ICS cybersecurity specialists will outpace the ever-evolving threat landscape. After all, sharing CTI data with all relevant operational technology (OT) directors in the energy sector enables synchronized incident responses.
While data security and silos are common barriers to successful collaboration, specialists can easily overcome them with adequate planning. Information sharing is one of threat intelligence‘s best practices because it provides teams with more industry-specific data on relevant threats.
3. Integrate CTI Feeds With Management Systems
CISA recommends integrating CTI feeds into security information and event management (SIEM) systems, TIP or security orchestration, automation and response (SOAR) systems. Cybersecurity teams can identify and block threats faster this way.
The agency also urges ICS cybersecurity specialists to use CTI feeds to create threat detection rules for their SIEM, TIP or SOAR systems. This strategy enables the automatic identification of IOCs, dramatically improving incident response speed.
4. Set up Automated Alerts
While leveraging CTI feeds to better identify IOCs and prioritize security threats is beneficial, incident response is sluggish without alerts. Cybersecurity teams should enable them with their SIEM or SOAR systems to better identify relevant dangers.
Making alerts automatic allows for a real-time reaction to threats. It is one of threat intelligence’s best practices because it enables proactive action. Professionals should also consider automating incident response.
5. Source Industry-Specific Data
The director of OT security must identify information related to the energy sector. While generic ICS data is technically useful, it might not reflect legitimate threats. As a result, cybersecurity professionals may not have accurate IOCs and may be unable to adequately prioritize threats.
CTI Can Successfully Defend Against Cyber Threats
Threat intelligence’s best practices revolve around proven analysis techniques that transform raw data into something actionable. Following them gives professionals a better chance of defending against cyber threats since CTI is more effective with strategic implementation.
Emily Newton is a technology journalist with over five years in the industry. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations