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KSG Exec Brief: Final Boarding Call for Rethinking Aviation Cybersecurity
The seat belt sign is on. Expect a bumpy ride.
The aviation sector must consider modern, more expansive risk models to navigate a strategic environment at the nexus of emerging cyber and geopolitical threats. The combination of legacy IT/OT with new connectivity interfaces, sprawling third-party dependencies and digital supply chains, strained corporate balance sheets and infosec budgets, increasing regulatory mandates, highly visible industry stumbles, and aggressive nation-state threats indicate major turbulence ahead.
The aviation industry had a no good, very bad week of IT and cybersecurity issues: a flawed software update at United upended Labor Day travel nationwide, while WestJet experienced a “network-wide” technical disruption caused by an outage at industry service provider Sabre, which itself is now investigating claims of a ransomware data breach.
Further, CISA just released a cybersecurity advisory alerting the sector to IOCs associated with multiple national state APTs successfully targeting an aviation industry firm.
KSG sees the aviation industry increasingly at the nexus of cyber and geopolitical risk, with legacy infosec challenges exacerbated by advanced adversary threats and regulatory requirements. We assess that nation-state threat actors, cybercriminal groups, and hacktivist groups possess growing capability and intent to target Western firms supporting critical infrastructure, including aviation.
In particular, recent leaks of intelligence documents from Russia indicate a specific interest in targeting operational aviation systems. Further, Chinese threat actors are known to be targeting US critical infrastructure firms (including the aviation sector) given their military doctrine that sees disrupting civilian systems as a means of deterring or coercing US political decision-makers in a time of conflict.
Participants in the USAF Civil Reserve Air Fleet should also expect to be targeted for their role supporting contingency airlift requirements for the Department of Defense, something likely to be activated in a Taiwan crisis situation.
Against this geopolitical backdrop, aviation CISOs face a complex technology and cybersecurity risk environment, resulting from:
Growing integration of new tech into legacy systems, including new connectivity interfaces and e-Enabled aircraft;
Increasing federal cyber regulations and compliance requirements;
Constrained security budgets that limit focus to catastrophic risks and compliance;
Security cultures that often silo cyber/IT from the broader organization and create obstacles to effective enterprise engagement and operational collaboration;
Tactically oriented people, processes, and tooling aimed at immediate triage, not strategic risk;
Complex global supply chains that increase upstream risk exposure; and
Increasing third-party risks from the economy-wide move to, and dependency on, cloud-enabled services and the associated shift in risk management responsibilities.
While the geopolitical threats to aviation cybersecurity grow, aviation faces the technical difficulty of defending complex legacy and modern systems. The industry must protect a uniquely broad range of vulnerable elements: from its airport and online systems and data to vendor supply chains and airplane electronics. Despite all this, aviation cybersecurity’s resources and incentives lag the threat environment.
KSG saw these issues surface as we recently completed a strategic cyber risk and capability assessment for a major airline. As part of this engagement, KSG:
Developed and validated a strategic threat model that linked current and emerging risks to the corporate value chain and cyber capability requirements;
Reviewed and re-aligned their technical and security stack to achieve efficiencies while enhancing capability; and
Put down a capability roadmap for corporate and cybersecurity leadership to jointly drive enhanced cyber risk governance and enterprise-wide engagement.
It is apparent to us that airlines are operating in an environment of rising cybersecurity and technology threats and are at the frontlines of emerging geopolitical risk. At the same time, live operational demands, tactical incident response, and ever-growing compliance requirements make it difficult for security leaders to step-back, re-assess their posture against strategic risks, and communicate their needs to business executives.
Even when the risks are clear and the gaps manifest, tight budgets and other business priorities can get in the way of building an effective security organization. This requires high-level, executive engagement across the enterprise to help leadership understand how these risks impact operational reliability, customer relations, corporate liability, shareholder value, passenger safety, and even national security.
Success here can mean the difference between an industry-standard “bad day” and a “business existential event.”
For more information or assistance on these issues, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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