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The Security Implications of A Digital Twin

Jan 24 2023

Digital twins are digital replicas of physical assets, processes, and systems, and they are used to perform simulations and analysis to optimise the real-world performance of those assets, processes, or systems. They have become increasingly popular in many industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, and transportation. However, as digital twins become more prevalent, it is important to consider the cybersecurity implications of these technologies.

One of the main risks associated with digital twins is that they can provide cyber criminals with a new way to access and exploit sensitive information. For example, a digital twin of a manufacturing facility could provide attackers with detailed information about the layout, equipment, and processes used in the facility. This information could be used to plan and execute a targeted cyber attack.

Digital twins could also be used by cyber criminals as a way to access and attack the physical assets they are modeled after. For example, a digital twin of a power plant could be used to gain unauthorised access to the controls of the plant, potentially causing damage or disruption—in the worst scenarios disrupting essential services, harming humans, animals, or the environment.

To mitigate these risks, organisations must take a proactive approach to securing their digital twins. These systems are complex, and it is insufficient to look at them in a linear way, as though they are isolated pieces roughly stitched together. Such an approach will always produce suboptimal protections. Of course, and as with any system, robust authentication, authorisation, and access should be part of the basic hygiene regime, but securing a digital twin requires more.

STAMP is a model for identifying the causes of accidents that uses systems theory and systems thinking. Developed by Nancy Leveson at MIT, it takes into account a wide range of factors that can contribute to accidents, such as software, human decision-making, new technology, organisational and social factors, and the overall safety culture. It is particularly useful for analysing complex systems where these factors are becoming increasingly important. When used for incident planning purposes with digital twins, it does a good job of analysing risk with awareness that the physical side of a digital twin is more than a sum total of individual parts.

Security professionals working to guard digital twin systems should ensure that they are not ignoring the purpose of the system, and they also need to capture the worst outcomes of a potential attack. And this needs to be done in detail, including consideration for questions such as: 

  • What does the hierarchy of controllers (systems, humans, policies, and even regulations) and their interactions look like? 
  • Where are the vulnerabilities and how can they be exploited? 
  • What steps can be taken to avoid/reduce the negative impact of an incident?

Prevention is better than a cure, but organisations should plan for both. A robust incident response plan that includes procedures for detecting, responding to, and recovering from cyber attacks is essential. This plan should be regularly tested and updated to ensure that it remains effective in the event of a real-world incident.

It is important to conduct regular penetration testing on digital twin systems to identify and address vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by attackers. This can be done by simulating cyber attacks on the digital twin systems, and then evaluating the system’s response and identifying any weaknesses that need to be addressed. And digital twin systems should be properly segmented and isolated from other systems and networks. This limits the potential impact of a successful cyber attack on the digital twin systems, and prevents the attacker from moving laterally and accessing other sensitive data or systems.

Digital twins are a powerful technology, and their growing popularity reflects the value that they can bring. However, they also introduce new cybersecurity risks that must be addressed. Organisations must take a proactive approach to securing their digital twins and must implement robust security measures to protect against cyber attacks. By doing so, they can better ensure the safety and security of their digital twin systems and the physical assets they represent.If you’d like to learn more, listen to the recent episode on the Security Visionaries podcast where Mike Anderson, David Fairman, and I discuss digital twins, the industrial metaverse, and more.

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Ilona Simpson
Ilona Simpson serves as Chief Information Officer EMEA for Netskope. A seasoned CIO, she brings to the table over 20 years’ experience of initiating and leading the implementation of new business / technology strategies and operating models. During her career, she has delivered value through all phases of a business: high growth, downturns, new business integration and divestments.

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