Safeguarding Critical Infrastructure In The Transportation Sector


CEO and Co-Founder of Cervello, a security platform that maximizes operational resilience of heavy transport infrastructure. Forbes 30U30.

The transportation sector has always stood as the backbone of global commerce and economic growth. Ranging from railroads and highways to airports and sea/maritime ports, this sector is the lifeblood of any economy. Protecting its critical infrastructure is imperative in ensuring the mass, smooth flow of goods and people worldwide.

The rise in digitalization has undeniably transformed rail and transportation systems, bringing unprecedented efficiency, automation and data-driven decision-making. This very transformation has also made it far more complex to protect its critical infrastructure and maintain the safety and integrity of this vital sector going forward.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable rise in cyber-induced operational disruptions within the transportation sector. Given its societal importance, this industry has become a prime target for malicious actors looking to exploit its digital vulnerabilities. These cyber incidents have led to disruptions, data breaches and even costly physical and reputational damage.

To put it into perspective, ransomware attacks such as those on Forward Air in 2020 and the attack on New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 2021 show that companies not only wield significant economic influence but also have the potential to profoundly impact national security, the economy and safety.

Rail and transportation operators find themselves at the crossroads of innovation and vulnerability, needing a proactive and resilient approach to safeguarding critical infrastructure. It is a fundamental part of managing day-to-day risks in this new era. It demands a paradigm shift in conservative minds, where cybersecurity isn’t merely a box to check off but, rather, an integral part of the company’s DNA and strategy.

The Era Of Critical Infrastructure Security

Historically, cybersecurity efforts prioritize information technology (IT) as the level of awareness is high and most external network interfaces involve corporate IT environments. Over the past decade, the convergence of IT and operational technology (OT) systems has put significant pressure on security teams to implement more robust cybersecurity measures. Many organizations today need to manage the security of flat networks or the ever-growing, upgraded legacy networks—a challenging mission, especially for a critical infrastructure.

In the rail sector, for example, OT encompasses the technologies and processes that govern the physical safety and operations of railroads, including signaling, control systems, rolling stock, track infrastructure, station infrastructure and more. Unlike IT, where data security is paramount, OT focuses on the safe and reliable operation of critical infrastructure processes.

In transportation, it’s even more crucial and involves protecting human lives, sensitive passenger data and, almost immediately, the company’s public reputation. A significant cybersecurity incident for such an organization can have immediate, real-world consequences. These might include the derailment of a train or the redirection of an aircraft, posing a direct threat to human life and property.

To add to the challenge, critical infrastructures often operate using legacy OT systems with long life cycles. Originally lacking cybersecurity measures, these systems are highly susceptible to modern, advanced threats and easily exploitable. Unlike IT, where routine hardware and software updates are standard, OT systems prioritize stability, often delaying cybersecurity solutions due to the inconvenience. Without a mitigation strategy, these decisions could lead to catastrophic results.

Protecting The Heavy Transport Sector

In light of the rising sophistication of cyber threats, significant changes are needed in the way we perceive cybersecurity. The adoption of a cybersecurity mindset serves as the initial and most fundamental step in achieving a strategic advantage in the space. It is a paradigm shift that involves embracing not just the technologies but also making the cultural and operational adjustments required for a comprehensive, organization-wide approach.

The contemporary threat landscape is dynamic and increasingly complex. To effectively counter these threats, the strategy must shift from reactive responses to proactive anticipation and demands an ongoing process of learning, adapting, and evolving. The digitalization of the industry, coupled with the convergence of IT, IoT and OT systems, amplifies the complexity of this task. Companies need to consider not only safeguarding their digital assets but also maintaining the operational integrity of their systems. The primary hurdle lies in reshaping the organizational culture, particularly in sectors like transportation, where cybersecurity has been traditionally perceived as a separate entity—a position that is no longer viable.

In practical terms, companies can start by assessing their current cybersecurity posture through comprehensive risk assessments and a detailed asset inventory. This helps identify vulnerable and critical systems, offering valuable insights into their operational significance and functionalities. Regular vulnerability scanning, penetration testing and continuous monitoring are equally critical. These actions provide real-time insights essential for swift threat prevention, detection and response. In addition, including threat intelligence as part of a risk mitigation strategy helps uncover the specific types of attacks likely to target the organization’s proprietary assets, systems and protocols.

Cementing cybersecurity into the core of an organization’s security strategy and daily operations elevates the protection of critical infrastructure and reinforces the trust and reliability upon which the transportation sector rests. In this digitally interconnected era, a robust cybersecurity mindset transcends mere protection; it emerges as a competitive advantage, an enabler, a catalyst for sustainable growth and a cornerstone of operational efficiency.

Final Thoughts

In today’s reality, the consequences of inaction are too severe to ignore. Cyber threats in the transport sector, including rail, go beyond the fear of potential financial losses; they can compromise passenger and cargo safety, disrupt economies and endanger national security. It threatens the things that we care for the most, including the safety of our close ones.

It has always been necessary for trains to have brakes, resilient wheels and a variety of emergency systems for them to run safely. For trains to continue on this “track,” having a cybersecurity mindset must be at the core of any rail organization’s or transport infrastructure’s digital journey.

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