The Critical Need for Penetration Tests in the Manufacturing Sector

In today’s digital age, manufacturers are critical to the U.S. economy; however, they are increasingly at risk due to their reliance on complex technological systems to drive efficiency, innovation, and competitiveness. This digital transformation exposes them to significant cybersecurity threats. One crucial defense mechanism is the penetration test, a routine, simulated cyberattack designed to identify vulnerabilities before malicious actors can exploit them. Despite its importance as a preventative measure, many manufacturers neglect to conduct regular penetration tests, leaving themselves vulnerable to cyberattacks with potentially devastating consequences.

This blog explores the critical pitfalls of not performing penetration tests and highlights the importance of proactive cybersecurity measures.

The Rising Threat of Cyberattacks in Manufacturing

Manufacturing companies, especially those in the U.S. Defense Industrial Base, are key targets for cybercriminals due to their critical roles in the supply chain and reliance on interconnected systems. Cyberattacks can disrupt operations, result in financial losses, and damage reputations. In fact, for the third year in a row, the 2024 IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Report ranked manufacturing as the top attacked industry by cybercriminals. Historically, the manufacturing sector’s low tolerance for downtime has made it a prime target for cybercriminals looking to press those companies for financial gain. The IBM report noted that, in 2023, manufacturers made up more than a quarter of all security incidents worldwide — with malware attacks (45 percent) and ransomware (17 percent) making up most of them.

In the constantly evolving threat landscape, this trend calls for organizations to implement cybersecurity solutions to mitigate any potential damage from data security. The report found that security fundamentals should remain intrinsic to the manufacturing sector’s security strategy; patching, multifactor authentication, least privilege principles, encrypted connections, and penetration testing can deter most incidents. Modernizing identity and access management across the organization can also help enterprises safeguard their networks, transform governance, and demonstrate compliance.

Understanding Penetration Testing

Penetration testing, or ethical hacking, involves simulating cyberattacks on a system, network, or application to identify security weaknesses. These tests are conducted by skilled cybersecurity professionals who use the same techniques as malicious hackers. The goal is to uncover vulnerabilities before they can be exploited, allowing manufacturers to strengthen their defenses.

Pitfalls of Neglecting Penetration Testing

Unidentified Vulnerabilities

Without regular penetration tests, manufacturers may remain unaware of critical vulnerabilities in their systems. Cybercriminals are constantly evolving their techniques, and new vulnerabilities are discovered regularly. Neglecting penetration testing means organizations may have undetected security gaps, making them easy targets.

Increased Risk of Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware attacks have become increasingly sophisticated and prevalent. These attacks encrypt a victim’s data and demand a ransom for its release. In manufacturing, ransomware can disrupt production lines, delay shipments, and lead to substantial financial losses. Regular penetration testing can help identify vulnerabilities that ransomware could exploit, allowing organizations to take preventative measures.

Regulatory Non-Compliance

Many industries, including manufacturing, are subject to stringent data security and privacy regulatory requirements. (For example, the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification, or CMMC, mandates specific cybersecurity practices for Defense Industrial Base companies to protect sensitive information.) Failure to comply with these regulations can result in severe penalties and legal repercussions. Penetration testing is often a requirement for regulatory compliance, and neglecting it can put organizations at risk of non-compliance, leading to fines and reputational damage.

Damage to Reputation and Customer Trust

A cyberattack can have a lasting impact on a manufacturer’s reputation. Customers, partners, and stakeholders expect these organizations to protect sensitive data and ensure the integrity of their operations. A breach can erode trust and lead to a loss of business. By conducting regular penetration tests, manufacturers can demonstrate their commitment to cybersecurity and build trust with their stakeholders.

Financial Losses

The financial impact of a cyberattack can be staggering. Costs associated with data breaches, ransomware payments, legal fees, regulatory fines, and operational downtime can quickly add up. A study by the Ponemon Institute found that the average data breach cost in 2023 was $9.48 million in the United States. Regular penetration testing is a cost-effective way to identify and mitigate vulnerabilities, reducing the risk of costly cyberattacks.

Disruption of Operations

Cyberattacks can bring operations to a standstill. Production lines can be halted, supply chains disrupted, and critical systems compromised. The downtime caused by a cyberattack can result in significant delays and lost revenue. Penetration testing helps identify weaknesses that could be exploited to disrupt operations, allowing organizations to implement robust security measures to ensure business continuity.

Multiethnic Robotics Engineer Talking to Project Manager, Discussing Robot Dog Concept in High Tech Research and Development Facility.

The Role of Penetration Testing in a Comprehensive Cybersecurity Strategy

Penetration testing should be a cornerstone of any comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. It provides valuable insights into the security posture and helps prioritize remediation efforts. Here are five key steps that manufacturers should take to incorporate penetration testing into their cybersecurity strategy:

  1. Conduct Regular Penetration Tests

Organizations should schedule regular penetration tests to stay ahead of evolving threats. Annual or bi-annual tests are recommended, but the frequency should be determined based on the organization’s risk profile, industry regulations, and the complexity of its IT infrastructure.

  1. Engage Qualified Professionals

Penetration testing should be conducted by qualified cybersecurity professionals, such as my AIS Network colleagues, who have experience in the manufacturing sector. These experts understand these environments’ unique challenges and vulnerabilities and can provide tailored recommendations.

  1. Address Identified Vulnerabilities

Identifying vulnerabilities is only the first step. Organizations must take immediate action to address the weaknesses uncovered during penetration testing. This may involve patching software, updating security configurations, and implementing additional security controls.

  1. Integrate Penetration Testing with Other Security Measures

Penetration testing should be part of a broader cybersecurity strategy that includes network monitoring, incident response planning, employee training, and regular security audits. An integrated approach ensures comprehensive protection against cyber threats.

  1. Foster a Culture of Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity should be a priority at all levels of a manufacturing company. Fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness and providing ongoing training to employees should be routine. Employees should understand the importance of following security protocols and be vigilant against phishing attacks and other common threats.

What Are Your Next Steps?

In this environment of escalating cyber threats, manufacturers cannot afford to neglect penetration testing. A cyberattack can have devastating consequences, impacting operations, finances, reputation, and regulatory compliance.

By conducting regular penetration tests, these organizations can identify and address vulnerabilities before they are exploited, ensuring the security and resilience of their operations. Investing in penetration testing is not just a proactive measure but a critical component of a robust cybersecurity strategy that protects against the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats.

AISN specializes in providing comprehensive penetration testing services tailored for manufacturers, especially those companies in the defense industrial base that may need to shore up their security in preparation for the CMMC assessment.

With more than 31 years of experience in the IT industry, AISN is uniquely positioned to help you safeguard your operations against cyber threats. Contact us today to schedule a penetration test and learn how you can fortify your defenses against cyberattacks.