CVE-2024-3400: PAN-OS Command Injection Vulnerability in GlobalProtect Gateway. Learn More

CVE-2024-3400: PAN-OS Command Injection Vulnerability in GlobalProtect Gateway. Learn More

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Mining Operations: Critical Cybersecurity Threats & Trends Revealed

Cybersecurity professionals often point out that threat actors do not differentiate when choosing a victim. To an attacker, a hospital is as useful a target as a law firm or even a mining operation. After all, a mining company has the same attributes that make it as interesting as any other target: proprietary data and customer information, and it must stay in operation. All of which an attacker can exploit for financial gain.

Compounding the problem for the mining industry is, like almost every industry, the fact it has rapidly adopted digital technologies creating an extensive surface threat landscape. This situation becomes crucial to secure mining operations against cyber threats.

Let's explore some key cybersecurity trends affecting mining companies and start with a focus on operational disruption.


Operational Disruption: A Critical Threat

Operational disruption stands out as one of the most critical cybersecurity threats facing the mining industry. After all, mining operations have been disrupted for non-cyber reasons, labor issues, mining accidents, etc., so we completely understand the impact caused by a disruption. However, a stoppage is a stoppage, and here are a couple of examples of ransomware groups disrupting critical systems:

  • Fortescue Metals Group, a significant player in the Australian mining industry and one of the largest iron exporters in the world, experienced a cyber-attack by the Russian ransomware group Cl0p in 2023. While the exact impact of the attack remains undisclosed, it may have resulted in operational disruptions and potential data exposure. The company did describe the attack as "a low-impact cyber incident". The threat actor had claimed via their dark web blog that it had stolen customer data from Fortescue in a "financially motivated" attack.
  • The Copper Mountain Mining Corporation (CMMC) in British Columbia, Canada, fell victim to a ransomware attack in December 2022 that severely disrupted its operations. The attack targeted the company's IT systems, forcing a temporary shutdown of mill operations and requiring a shift to manual processes in some operational areas. Though the cyberattack did not result in any environmental or safety incidents, the resultant stoppage of copper and precious metals operations has potentially impacted the company's bottom line. Neither the authorities nor the victims disclosed the attacker's identity in this case.

Data Theft and breaches are also key cybersecurity threats within the mining industry, with threat actors often pairing ransomware and phishing attacks. In particular, phishing is increasingly sophisticated as an initial access vector, often bypassing conventional security measures, leading to data breaches by itself or facilitating more severe ransomware attacks.

Artificial intelligence and free apps like ChatGPT now make phishing and other email-based attacks even more difficult to spot, as these can create well-written, grammatically correct messages that an employee might not consider suspicious. Increasing the likelihood of clicking on a link or attachment.

Trustwave SpiderLabs researchers have continually been observing novel techniques such as HTML Smuggling, RPMSG phishing delivery, QR code phishing techniques, Cloudflare R2 public buckets phishing delivery, and new techniques in malicious PDF delivery.

Aside from the usual attacks focusing on the monetization of personal identities, threat actors also target mining companies to steal proprietary data such as exploration data and geological surveys.

Mining operations, like many others, also face significant third-party and supplier risks. These risks happen when external entities involved in a mining company's operations, such as software providers, IT service providers, Operational Technology (OT), and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, become compromised. Attackers exploit these vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access, potentially exposing sensitive data and disrupting critical operations.

For example, Barrick Gold Corp. faced a significant cybersecurity breach in 2019 perpetrated by the Russian threat actor Clop. Clop exploited a vulnerability in the third-party file-sharing system MOVEit. The MOVEit breach led to large-scale data theft, impacting hundreds of corporations and nearly 20 million individuals globally, including Barrick.


Why Cyber Threats Are Increasing in the Mining Sector

Mining operations are becoming vulnerable to cyberattacks for many of the same reasons as in all legacy manufacturing and critical infrastructure organizations. Instead of strictly relying on traditional analog and mechanical methods, mining firms have become more digitized.

Some of the advancements adopted include:

  • Automation and Digitization - Since the early 1990s, autonomous mining operations have advanced significantly due to technological innovations like GPS, remote sensing, and wireless communications. The mining sector has continually adopted automation, including self-driving haulage systems, vehicle monitoring through command and control systems, collision avoidance mechanisms, drones for aerial surveys, and remote operations centers for hazardous environments.
  • ICS, SCADA, and OT - Related to automation, ICS and Operational Technology (OT) play a vital role in the mining industry. Core mining activities such as production drilling, materials handling, and equipment movement are monitored and managed utilizing systems such as SCADA, DCS, PLC, RTU, and various sensors. While these technologies boost efficiency, cut costs, and enhance safety, they pose cybersecurity risks within their interconnected control systems.
  • Safety and Health Monitoring - Technological advancements in the mining sector also aim to improve workforce health and safety. Technologies such as wearable technologies for monitoring health indicators and environmental conditions assist in timely responses to potential safety issues. Such IoT devices have proven vulnerable to attack in the past.

The move toward digitization without a corresponding increase in cybersecurity capabilities and the growing number of threat groups capable of taking advantage of this gap means companies must proactively address cybersecurity risks. Strengthening defenses, investing in robust incident response plans, and fostering a culture of security awareness are crucial steps. As the industry continues to digitize, vigilance against cyber threats remains paramount.

Remember: Cybersecurity is not just an IT issue - it's a business imperative.

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