Industrial Robots Are at Increased Risk of Cybersecurity Threats: 7 Considerations for 2024

Why Are Industrial Robots at Risk?

Manufacturing became the most-targeted industry in 2023, accounting for 25.7% of all attacks, and much of this is because of rising IT/OT integration. Many new industrial robots feature Internet of Things (IoT) functionality. While that’s excellent for productivity, it means hackers can access this hardware remotely.

The industry has adopted connected robotics systems faster than it has embraced cybersecurity practices. Consequently, it is often relatively easy for cybercriminals to carry out successful attacks against the sector.

These rising vulnerabilities are more concerning in light of the damage they can cause. In most contexts, a cyberattack can lead to IT disruption and data loss — certainly costly but not outright dangerous. However, hackers could cause physical damage by taking remote control of industrial machinery.

Cybercriminals can theoretically cause a traffic wreck by hacking autonomous trucks or swinging hacked robotic arms into nearby employees. Alternatively, they could cause a robotic quality control system to malfunction, leading to product defects. Those losses would ripple throughout the supply chain, making such attacks more profitable for threat actors.


How to Secure Industrial Robots

Given these risks, industrial robot manufacturers and users alike must secure their automated systems before implementing them. Here are a few key considerations to improve this security in 2024 and beyond.


1. Air Gap Robots Where Possible

Many of industrial robots’ greatest vulnerabilities stem from IoT connectivity. Consequently, these systems are safest when they connect to fewer devices. Air gapping bots as much as possible leaves fewer points of entry and minimizes lateral movement, where criminals use a vulnerable system as a gateway to more sensitive data.

For robot manufacturers, this means enabling safer IoT defaults. Robots should not seek out other connections by default. Similarly, they must require manual authorization to connect to another device.

End users can implement this step by running automated machines on a different network than any endpoints they do not need to communicate with. 5G networks — which 56% of manufacturing organizations are already testing — are helpful here, as they support network slicing for easier segmentation.


2. Limit Access

Next, organizations must limit access to their robotics systems. More than half of all organizations have experienced an insider threat within the last year, highlighting the need for stricter internal controls.

Most insider attacks are not malicious — rather, they stem from human error or breached accounts. Regardless, restricting access permissions as much as possible will leave criminals with fewer options for breaking into a robot. Consequently, businesses should only allow employees whose jobs require controlling robots to access these systems and their networks.

Robotics engineers can support this goal by designing bots with better built-in access controls. This includes requiring complex passwords and multi-factor authentication (MFA).


3. Train Employees

User error is another prominent issue in industrial robot cybersecurity. Businesses can address this problem by requiring basic cybersecurity training for all employees.

Learning how to spot phishing attempts is one of the most important steps, as 52% of surveyed employees have fallen for scams where criminals impersonated higher-ups. Workers must also understand the importance of using strong, unique passwords and MFA. Creating a formal system for reporting unusual robot behavior — a possible sign of a breach — is also helpful.

On the design side, robotics companies should aim to keep their control systems as user-friendly as possible. The easier a system is to understand, the less likely mistakes will be.


4. Implement Automated Monitoring

Even with thorough preventive measures, robots and their connected infrastructure can still suffer breaches. Organizations must contain attacks to minimize their damage, which means capitalizing on automated network monitoring.

AI solutions can monitor robot networks for suspicious activity and lock them down as soon as irregularities arise. These immediate responses ensure businesses can minimize data loss and stop the attack before it endangers anyone. While it’s technically possible with human analysts, AI is far faster and more accurate.

These security solutions do involve more upfront costs. However, it’s estimated that cybercrime will cost the world nearly $14 trillion by 2028, which is far more expensive. Automated monitoring’s impact on breach cost reduction will compensate for its initial expenses over time.


5. Encrypt All Robot Data

Encryption is another crucial aspect of industrial robot cybersecurity. Large IoT networks could give robots access to large amounts of sensitive data. Encrypting this information will ensure that even if it leaks, it remains private, protecting trade secrets and customer privacy in the process.

Even if a robot does not deal with sensitive data, manufacturers should encrypt their IoT communications. This measure will make it harder for attackers to intercept communications between devices to gain remote access. It falls to robotics engineers to provide built-in encryption measures in bots, and users must enable them when they are not turned on by default.


6. Create an Incident Response Plan

Industrial robots will be far safer if designers and end users follow the above five steps. However, successful attacks can still happen and data breaches cost a staggering $4.45 million on average. The consequences are too high to assume a facility will never fall victim, so businesses must create an incident response plan.

These protocols should include steps to contain a breach, each employee’s responsibility, who to contact about it and how to communicate with them. Keeping encrypted backups of all mission-critical data and having a plan to restore them is likewise important.


7. Regularly Review Security Posture

Finally, both robot manufacturers and those implementing these machines must recognize that cybersecurity is an ongoing process. Cybercrime is constantly changing, so protective measures must also evolve to remain secure.

Robotics engineers can review the built-in security features they provide and how attacks against robots have changed. They may need to add new functionality or update systems over time. End users can hire penetration testers to show where their networks’ weak points lie. In both cases, reviews should happen at least annually, ideally a few times a year.


Industrial Cybersecurity Is Complicated but Crucial

Protecting industrial robots can be a complex undertaking. However, it is an essential one as cybercrime against manufacturers rises.

Both robot engineers and users must adopt new practices to stay safe. Following these seven steps will help organizations on either side of the industry ensure their security posture gets where it needs to be.


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