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Protecting Data on the Production Floor

Manufacturing organizations regard data as one of their most valuable assets. The sheer volume and diversity of this data may not always be obvious. However, it includes a wide range of critical information, such as blueprints, calculations, manufacturing logs, quality control records, supply chain data, R&D discoveries, client purchase histories, and more.

The value of this data is enormous, frequently determining the manufacturer’s existence. If this information falls into the wrong hands, it could lead to the reproduction of their goods elsewhere, possibly in geographical locations with significantly lower production costs and lack of protective regulations, gaining a significant economic advantage against the original manufacturer. Therefore, manufacturers must prioritize cybersecurity measures that help them effectively protect this data.

Common data security threats in manufacturing

Data theft is a major risk for manufacturers, with bad actors seeking this information for large illicit rewards on the black market. Profitability varies by industry, however, industries such as pharmaceuticals and defense are particularly vulnerable due to the sensitive nature of their operations. Threats are all around and go beyond hacks organized by hostile actors linked with troublesome nations. While these hackers seek to enrich their countries while disrupting the targeted governments by forcing production downtime, internal threats loom large, too.

Insiders equally pose a significant risk. Some employees within an organization may disregard ethical limits, willing to accept large sums of money in exchange for supplying bad actors with access to blueprints or formulas, allowing unethical competitors to reproduce valued items. Internal threats can come from a variety of sources, including personnel who feel devalued, those going through difficult life situations, or simply individuals who are naive or sensitive to external influence. This network of insider threats creates a covert avenue for data leaking, which frequently has serious ramifications for the companies.

Furthermore, organizations must guard against more than just deliberate attacks. Inadvertent disclosures, whether caused by negligence or simple oversight, might be just as dangerous. A single error that publicly exposes data, makes it easily available, or mistakenly disseminates it through personal channels – such as private email – can have disastrous consequences. The risk of brand damage and financial disaster looms large, emphasizing the enormous stakes involved in protecting manufacturing data using effective security controls.

Humans: always the weakest link

While journalists and Hollywood films frequently depict data theft as the activity of expert hackers in hoodies engaged in elaborate, never-ending coding and sophisticated cyberattacks such as those involving ransomware, the reality, especially in manufacturing, is quite different. The weakest link in the chain is the most typical source of data leaks: humans. Why bother with complex, months-long preparations, code analysis, installation of surveillance equipment within an organization, or circumventing complex security measures, when the same results can be obtained by targeting only one employee and getting them to click on a well-crafted phishing email?

When a bad actor can effectively imitate management and deceive a casual employee into sending extremely sensitive material via email as an attachment, the effort invested into complicated attacks may appear needless. As a result, access controls and data protection solutions that make data sharing outside the organization impossible are far more effective than such security solutions as firewalls, anti-malware packages, and network security and vulnerability scanners.

Physical security is also an important consideration that should not be disregarded in the age of digital transformation. While manufacturers normally maintain strict security measures on the shop floor or within their entire facilities, it is critical to think about security beyond those locations. In today’s work climate, many employees, including those with access to extremely sensitive data, bring their laptops home. However, it’s not just laptops, but also cell phones and USB drives that are still widely utilized to transmit data outside of the organization. Contrary to popular opinion, following someone and stealing a laptop bag or pickpocketing a USB drive is frequently far easier than executing a complicated cyberattack to breach an organization’s defenses.

Consequences of a manufacturing data breach

The implications of a data breach are generally negative for any organization, regardless of industry. These consequences go beyond simply exposing valuable data that can be used in a variety of damaging ways. They also include unauthorized access to other people’s information, such as customers’ personally identifiable information (PII), like credit card details and Social Security numbers, which bad actors can use for identity theft.

Furthermore, data breaches result in significant financial fines from regulatory bodies, as well as legal settlements, which can have a significant influence on a company’s financial health. Manufacturers tend to be among those most exposed to these repercussions. This increased vulnerability stems from their possession of sensitive data belonging to other stakeholders, as well as their intellectual property (IP). The disclosure of such confidential information could result in a significant and negative shift in their competitive position.

Manufacturers are also frequently required to conform to a variety of compliance and industry-specific security standards in order to pass required audits and be allowed to operate in their market. A breach of sensitive data results not only in financial fines but also has the potential to result in regulatory agencies canceling licenses, which might force a company to shut down operations. These standards include generic norms, such as GDPR and ISO 27001, that affect a wide range of businesses, either because they handle personal data or because business partners and customers require certification.

There are industry-specific regulations in addition to these general standards, such as HIPAA for the medical sector, CFR Part 11 for pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing, ITAR for defense and military equipment, and CMMC and NIST Special Publication 800-171 for safeguarding controlled unclassified information, particularly for defense contractors and subcontractors. Compliance with these standards is more than just good practice; it is a vital component of a manufacturer’s ability to remain in business. Avoiding a data breach that could jeopardize these standards is therefore critical.

The challenges of data security in manufacturing

The operating processes of manufacturers make protecting data a particular challenge. In traditional commercial environments without manufacturing plants, data security often entails securing ordinary devices such as computers, mobile phones, and potentially a few IoT devices. Because many organizations now host their primary management systems and operational technology using cloud services, maintaining server security posture and data protection is also less challenging because it’s more standardized. However, production environments filled with industrial control systems present a plethora of complexities.

Manufacturing automation is frequently closely linked to computing systems, which include embedded, highly customized, and non-standard solutions and interfaces. In many circumstances, you will come across legacy systems that were never developed with security in mind and have been unsupported for a long time. For example, some manufacturing plants still use computers from the 1980s, such as the Commodore 64, which can be a security nightmare to safeguard, and many PCs on the production floor still run Windows 95 or Windows XP. Fortunately, these systems are frequently offline, and if they are networked at all, they are almost never directly connected to the Internet. As a result, the risk of data breaches from legacy or specialized systems and devices is low.

Even when complicated technology, specialized equipment, and legacy systems are there, it is ultimately the human aspect that provides the most risk. While these devices may include sensitive data, formulas, and designs, the primary worry is common, conventional devices used on the manufacturing floor or in business offices. This is where the data is stored, making it the most accessible. Even if the originals are stored in cloud services, they must frequently be downloaded and transferred to local devices, raising the risk of sensitive information being spread among easily accessible systems.

The possibility of this data being left unsecured and vulnerable to copying and sharing is a major source of concern. This data privacy risk exists whether a bad actor gains access as a result of an employee mistakenly clicking on a malicious link, if an internal threat actor chooses to copy and transmit sensitive data to their personal account via email or instant messenger, or if the same data is stored without encryption on a USB drive or external disc and then moved outside of company premises, such as to another facility.

Enter the solution: Data loss prevention software

Manufacturers, like any other organization, require a broad collection of security solutions to meet their various security needs. This covers both traditional solutions like anti-malware and firewalls, as well as more specialized choices like zero-trust network access based on cloud RADIUS and TACACS+, network security scanners, and others. However, the category of solutions that provides the best security for the most sensitive data is Data Loss Prevention (DLP). DLP solutions address the essential link between technology and the most significant risk: humans.

DLP solutions effectively handle the issues outlined in this post. For example, they can detect sensitive data that a user has downloaded to their computer in real-time, perform automatic risk assessments, and then apply security policies to that data. These policies can range from quickly erasing the download to controlling behaviors that may lead to data sharing, such as banning clipboard copying, inhibiting the ability to share information over email or instant messaging, and preventing storage on an unencrypted USB drive. These efforts are identified by the DLP software, alerting IT security personnel to investigate and determine if it was an unintentional error or a malicious theft attempt.

As a result, it’s difficult to imagine a manufacturer, particularly in a sensitive industry, without a sturdy, well-established, and proven DLP solution. Endpoint Protector by CoSoSys is one of the best solutions for this task. It is not only highly effective but also simple to implement, all while being suited to the specific needs of the manufacturing industry. This is clearly a solution that warrants a closer look.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common data security threats faced by manufacturers?
Manufacturers face data security threats such as data theft, involving external malicious actors as well as internal threats from paid-off or disgruntled employees. Vulnerable sectors, like pharmaceuticals and defense, are the most threatened due to their sensitive nature. Inadvertent data disclosures can also lead to financial and reputational damage.
Are there specific regulations or compliance standards that apply to data protection in manufacturing?
Manufacturers must comply with regulations and standards to operate. These standards include general norms like GDPR and ISO 27001. Industry-specific standards, such as HIPAA and ITAR, apply to sectors like healthcare and defense. Compliance with these standards is crucial for a manufacturer to continue its operations.
What are the potential consequences of a data breach on the production floor?
Data breaches in manufacturing can lead to dire consequences. They expose valuable data and IP, and may also result in unauthorized access to customers' PII. Regulatory fines and legal settlements can harm a company's financial health. Manufacturing firms, especially those with sensitive data, are at risk of losing their competitive position and could face license revocation, potentially forcing them to cease operations.

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