Securing Malaysia’s adoption of robotics against attacks

robotics attacks
Mechanized industry robot and robotic arms for assembly in factory production. Image by World Image | Bigstockphoto

In February 2022, Malaysia announced the development of the National Robotics Roadmap (NRR) to lift robotics technology into mainstream usage to boost national productivity. But there needs to be, hand-in-hand, a plan to secure devices against cyber attacks.

Towards the end of 2021, high-profile attacks against critical national infrastructure highlighted vulnerabilities that led to far-reaching disruption. These attacks — Colonial Pipeline, JBS and the Kaseya software supply chain cases — were wake-up calls to develop better security systems.

Detailed in the Coping with ‘leak and shame’ attacks against critical national infrastructure article, computer-controlled systems such as industrial control systems (ICS) are used in key sectors, including power and water utilities and manufacturing, to automate or remotely control production handling and distribution.

The rising level of attacks

Today’s conflicts worldwide, including those in Europe, involve continued waves of cyberattacks linked to reports of IT armies. In addition, the proposed increase in the adoption of robotics has refreshed cybersecurity concerns.

Dickson Woo

An industry veteran of almost three decades, Dickson Woo, Country Manager, Fortinet Malaysia, recently shared his thoughts around bolstering defences around the country’s industries and critical infrastructure with Disruptive.Asia.

“The pandemic has amplified the importance of looking at the bigger picture, especially in terms of what we give back,” he said, adding that the company’s business strategy is anchored on positively impacting our communities by ensuring they are equipped to fend off the sophisticated cyber threats of today.

In addition, Fortinet is committed to fostering partnerships with all of the 11 sectors under the nation’s Critical National Information Infrastructure (CNII) to safeguard the vital assets, systems and functions critical to Malaysia’s economic growth and security.

Rise of robotics

Welcoming the NRR, together with other high-impact initiatives such as the national rollout of 5G and continued push towards becoming a digital nation, Woo added: “These initiatives are a clear sign of Malaysia’s robustness in facing the fourth industrial revolution.”

While the NRR would significantly impact the manufacturing and logistics industry, the widespread adoption of robotics will increase the surface area of attack for cyber attackers. Organisations need to ensure that their infrastructure is well protected before introducing it.

“Although encouraging digital transformation will significantly boost productivity, the flip side is that it exposes organisations to new threats by creating previously non-existent vulnerabilities. For example, the deployment of robotics will increase the attack surface of organisations, meaning that mitigation must be taken to ensure that businesses can shield themselves against threat actors,” he explained.

“This involves enhancing security measures on the factory floor so that previously unconnected devices and systems do not pose risks to workers and the business more generally. While authorities are being proactive by establishing national agendas like the Malaysia Cyber Security Strategy 2020-2024 and The Malaysian Digital Economy Blueprint, businesses too must take on the mantle of ensuring that their networks are equipped to protect their valuable assets against attackers.”

Industrial Control Systems

Regarding critical infrastructure and industry infrastructure, Woo noted that Industrial Control Systems (ICS) are important in supporting critical infrastructure and maintaining national security. The danger posed by cyber-attacks on these systems can have lasting adverse effects on our communities.

Data from Fortinet’s 2021 State of Operational Technology and Cybersecurity Report suggested that attacks on organisations charged with protecting OT (operational technology) environments are rampant.

“The damage does not just hinder productivity and revenue but is also a blemish on an organisation’s reputation< ‘he said. “Threat actors do not only attack for financial gain but have an agenda to disrupt the daily lives of the public.”

It was reported that breaches have increased to 42%, and it needs to be on the minds of OT leaders.

In recent years there have been incidents of bad actors hacking into water reservoirs to poison water consumed by citizens.

In a Gartner report, by the year 2025, cyber attackers will use OT as weapons and harm innocent lives. The financial impact of this tragedy is expected to cost more than $50 billion, and that is without accounting for the human life value as compensation, litigation and other factors will be high.

Impact of security perils

A sobering insight is included in IDC’s 2021 manufacturing insights survey, which said that 76% of Asia/Pacific manufacturers are not expecting to invest in OT security over the next two years. This suggested there were shortfalls in education and awareness of the risks organisations face in the industrial sector.

As companies move towards Industry 4.0, the need for data to support decisions, drive operational efficiency, improve product quality and optimise operations is more critical than ever. Recently manufacturers have experienced extreme data growth with the accelerated adoption of technologies such as IoT sensors, robotics, and edge devices.

However, there is a cost to this level of automation and connectivity. More organisations need to acknowledge that the potential security perils are as much about human threats as technological. As a result, companies will need to leverage IT and operational expertise to address security, business, and operational requirements.

“Malware has continued to be a persistent mode of attack,” Woo explained. “With the pandemic-induced shift to remote working, cyber attackers sought to exploit the loopholes that emerged.”

Other common attack vectors were insider breaches and phishing, he continued. “Phishing is one of the oldest tricks in the books used but has evolved into an advanced method, while insider breaches have emerged as a challenge where existing credentials from previous employees are not voided. The heavy reliance on personal devices has also led to employees being made a vessel for criminal activities.”

Securing critical infrastructure players

An earlier Disruptive.Asia article, covering an industry leadership forum hosted by TM One, the enterprise and business solutions arm of Telekom Malaysia, noted that frontier technologies such as AI, machine learning and more responsive, pervasive cloud platforms have triggered mounting disruption of multiple industries. One of the solutions was to review the security playbook with skilled technology partners.

Speaking of choosing the best partners, Woo advises that: “Organisations should evaluate if security providers can identify assets, classify them, and prioritise based on value, segment the network dynamically, analyse traffic for threats and vulnerabilities and secure both wired and wireless access. These are all crucial elements of proactively limiting risk in OT networks.”

Woo further opined that: “Infrastructure players such as Telekom Malaysia (TM) have taken tremendous efforts to empower and strengthen the cybersecurity posture in Malaysia. TM has signed a Memorandum of Collaboration (MoC) with CyberSecurity Malaysia as they understand the importance of security in the digital economy.”

“Their role will see them protecting and fending off threat actors that look to bring down businesses in the public and private sectors. While a key focus area for Digital Nasional Bhd (DNB – the special purpose vehicle appointed by the government to drive the development of Malaysia’s 5G infrastructure) is network slicing to boost faster service delivery with 5G technology and improved flexibility with added security.”

He said that telecom companies are usually targets of attacks as they control and operate critical infrastructure.

“As a result, it is vital for telecom companies to harness best-in-class cyber security solutions to better detect, respond and control increasingly sophisticated threats that emerge as we move towards next-generation technologies like 5G.”

“With processing speed that is up to 10 times faster than its predecessor enabling the exchange of large amounts of data at any given moment, telecom companies will have to face the challenge of monitoring their security in real-time, Woo said. “For OT leaders, there are also concerns over incoherent security standards across IoT devices, as more IoT devices accessing 5G networks, increases access points and vulnerabilities of access.”

Security by design

Woo cited another recent survey, which revealed that 77% of Malaysian businesses are prioritising technology adoption in the short term to adapt to the demands made by the pandemic.

“However, moving towards Industry 4.0 also involves raising investments in OT security,” he pointed out. “While most business leaders in the manufacturing sector are aware of the significant risks unprotected OT systems pose, there is some resistance to change and misallocation of resources.”

Woo said that organisations should also follow cyber security best practices as advised by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as part of his concluding remarks.

“To better protect an organisation, cyber security needs to be part of the designed phase rather than when it had been implemented,” he said. “When security is not built from the ground up, it makes it increasingly difficult to change or fix the problem. With the convergence of IT/OT technology, businesses must prioritise securing these networks as cyber criminals are exploiting the inadequacies of now connected legacy OT systems.”

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