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Last edited 19 Jul 2016

Cyber threats to building automation and control systems

This article originally appeared as a BSRIA blog post Should Building Managers worry about scary movies? written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson and published in January 2015.


Building managers thinking of films to see this winter may give some thought to a previously little known comedy largely set in North Korea.

The successful cyber-attacks on Sony, one of the world's best known corporations, and which lives and breathes digital technology, resulted in the release of reams of sensitive information, and led Sony to delay the opening of the film. All this may on the face of it have little to do with the nuts and bolts of building automation, but it does fire another warning shot across the industry's bows.

We have known for some time that buildings are vulnerable to cyber-attack. Not only can they be major targets in themselves, but they often offer an easy “back door” into an organisation's wider IT network. The successful attack on Target stores in the USA gained access via the company's HVAC system which in turn allowed them into the more lucrative customer data records. BSRIA research shows that, in the USA for example, over 90% of all larger buildings (i.e. those with more than half a million square feet of space – or c. 50,000 m2) have some kind of building automation and control system (BACS), and many are to some degree at risk.

What is striking is that in so many successful attacks on buildings or infrastructure the problem had less to do with the cyber-protection systems in place than with the way in which they were being maintained and operated. At Target, alerts were generated but not acted on until after much of the damage was done. The earlier attack on Google's Australian offices in Sydney were linked to the fact that an older version of the Tridium platform was still in use.

Many organisations lack effective processes and procedures, which in turn is linked to the fact that, even within the same organisation, building services and IT tend still to work in separate, parallel worlds.

All of this is compounded by the fact that BACS systems increasingly have at least one foot in the Cloud, and often several. Almost all major suppliers of BACS and Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS) offer at least the option of cloud based analytics, and the ability to access and manage multiple buildings remotely is seen as almost a “must-have” – outside of industries which have traditionally been hypersensitive about security. The cloud brings huge technical, social and financial benefits, but also greatly increases risk, as does the general spread of IT based functionality through buildings and devices, a process that the 'internet of things' is set to expand exponentially.

Major suppliers of BACS systems are talking publically about ways of addressing the challenge, and companies like Lynxspring are establishing a reputation in this area. In the UK the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) issued a Code of Practice for Cyber Security in the Built Environment in November 2014.

Cyber-attacks tend to be motivated by political, ideological, or financial motives, or by a combination of mischief and malice. On all these scores, major buildings remain vulnerable especially when they are associated with prominent organisations, whether private or public.

In BSRIA's market briefing Threats / Opportunities for Building Automation Systems, we look further at the cyber threat and what is being done to counter it. The study also looks at other major trends that are changing the profile and prospects of building automation. These include the development of more intelligent HVAC systems, (whether Direct Expansion or VRF based), the growth of 'smart homes' solutions which are also snapping at the heels of the BACS market at the “lower end” of commercial buildings, the growing importance of building analytics and big data, and the rise of potential new global players, especially in countries like China and India.

We will be following these and other emerging trends. It should be as exciting anything that Hollywood has to offer, for rest assured: The cyber threat (and much else) is coming to a building near you soon.

--BSRIA

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