July 25, 2022 By Mike Elgan 3 min read

More than a year ago, a ransomware attack made the news across the nation. The Colonial Pipeline Company announced on May 7, 2021, that the DarkSide Ransomware-as-a-Service group, based in eastern Europe, had hit it. The FBI has since confirmed DarkSide, which has since shut down, as the threat actors. What’s changed about U.S. cyber policy since then, including in the wake of the Russian attack on Ukraine?

An important note: the attack impacted the IT side of the business. As a precaution, the company shut down the operational technology (OT) side, meaning the pipeline itself. The Colonial Pipeline stretches 5,500 miles from Texas to New York, carrying up to 3 million barrels of fuel per day. The five-day shutdown cut off the East Coast from roughly half the normal supply of gasoline and jet fuel. That led to a sharp rise in gas prices, as well as gas shortages, panic buying and long lines at gas stations.

More than that, it shocked the national security and law enforcement worlds. Both learned anew that the nation’s critical infrastructure was open to attack.

Colonial Pipeline paid $4.5 million in ransom to restore its compromised systems. The DarkSide recovery tools were so slow that the company ended up mostly using its business continuity tools instead.

In the wake of the attack

In the wake of the attack, negotiations between the United States and Russia began. The Russian Federal Security Service arrested a person alleged to be behind the attack. (Any cooperation here ended after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.) Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is still offering a reward of up to $10 million to name or locate any DarkSide leader.

Now, Colonial Pipeline is facing a possible $1 million fine for operational lapses and management failures leading up to the attack. The biggest alleged failure was poor preparation for the shutdown and restart of its pipeline.

The attack also sped up the political momentum for the government to pass new laws. New cybersecurity directives apply to pipeline operators and other critical infrastructure companies.

New U.S. directives for pipelines

The Transportation Security Administration issued two major mandatory directives for all U.S. pipeline operators around cybersecurity and disclosure.

The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced on April 20 that they’re expanding their Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative advisory board, itself established in August 2021, to include industrial control systems experts. They also published a document filled with nitty-gritty details about specific Russia-sponsored threats to IT and OT systems in response to heightened risk resulting from the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In other words, the government, the pipeline industry and the cybersecurity world are still grappling with the aftermath of the Colonial Pipeline attack.

The Colonial Pipeline attack shows how small lapses or easy attacks can lead to major problems. It’s a chance for other businesses to consider improvements to their own policies and procedures. It also unearthed a new, previously under-appreciated link between IT and OT. (Remember, the voluntary shutdown of its OT — stopping the pipeline flow of gas — did all the damage. That created all the public concern, but it was IT the attackers targeted.)

Takeaways for businesses

DarkSide hackers used an old password to access Colonial’s IT networks through a VPN without multi-factor authentication. How well this simple attack worked reveals five points that should be top of mind today:

  1. All passwords must expire. Businesses need good password management in general, and to sunset passwords in particular. It’s not enough to add new, strong passwords.
  2. Passwords aren’t a good idea. To rely on passwords for security is to rely on people. That leaves you open to human error, insider threats and social engineering. The sooner we can move beyond passwords, the better.
  3. Multi-factor authentication is a must. Any single-factor authentication scheme represents a nearly open door to cyber attackers.
  4. Know your air gaps. Where are the air gaps (if any) between IT and OT systems? Know what your network segmentation looks like.
  5. Zero trust works. Perimeter security is a thing of the past. Getting inside the perimeter, through a virtual private network or any other means, creates massive vulnerability. Strong zero trust would have thwarted this attack. Even if an attacker managed to defeat user authentication protocols, they wouldn’t be able to progress further into the device and software.

The bottom line takeaway from the Colonial Pipeline attack: the part of the business attacked and the part of the business affected are not always connected. The sophistication of the attack and the impact aren’t, either.

Yes, embrace high-tech tools, AI and other leading-edge solutions. But also get the basics and the architecture right. Have a backup plan for the actions you’ll take if an attack actually does occur. That way, you’ll have more options than a complete shutdown, whatever the future brings.

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