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The rush to automate more factory processes may look like it’s saving money, but to Ken Westin, a senior security analyst at Tripwire, it’s a dangerous trend that’s spreading cyber vulnerabilities across entire industries. And it will only get worse. Westin says that too much or unsafely implemented automation in chemical and pharmaceutical plants will result in a catastrophic, and largely avoidable, cyber attack in the next two years.

According to Defense One , that automation is on the rise is no secret. Boston Consulting Group has forecast that between this year and 2025,1.2 million industrial robots will make their way into factories across the United States (in addition to those in factories today.) Some projections commonly cited among the chemical and pharmaceutical industry suggest that automation in more factories could increase throughput by 20 percent on a yearly basis and reduce energy consumption by 8 percent.

“A lot of businesses see value in automating a lot more of the processes when it comes to manufacturing,” Westin said at the Black Hat cybersecurity conference here. “They’ll actually let a lot of these people go, like the engineers. And they’ll focus on the automation. What they fail to do is look at the increased risk that that poses to the organization.”

“These systems were designed decades ago,” he went on. “They’re using protocols that are pretty ancient. They were designed for reliability and efficiency. Security was not a part of that. The security occurred on the physical end, protecting people who came in and out of these physical systems. Once you connect that to a corporate network? What happens is the corporate network now gets connected to the manufacturing plant, which was never designed to be connected to the Internet at all. When you have that connection, that increases risk to the organization. That’s something that’s not assessed in their analysis of risk.”

How ubiquitous is open Internet connectivity in supervisory command and control systems? You would be surprised. “Where and when something happens is almost completely under cyber control,” said Jason Larsen, a principal security consultant at the group IOACTIVE. “Opening and closing valves is almost always under cyber control.” Larsen spoke during a demonstration that showed how un opening and closing of valves can cause heat and pressure buildups as well as massive container destruction, and leaks of volatile or poisonous chemicals.

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