How to Pen Test Industrial Control Systems (ICS) for Critical Infrastructure Security

November 28, 20235 min read

Penetration testing (Pen Test) is a crucial component for ensuring the security and resilience of Industrial Control Systems (ICS) that operate within critical infrastructures such as power plants, water treatment facilities, and manufacturing plants. Given the potentially severe consequences of a breach, security testing in these environments must be conducted with a great deal of care and expertise.

Pre-Engagement and Planning

Before commencing any testing, there are critical steps that need to be taken:

  • Stakeholder Engagement: Identify all parties with an interest in the pen test, including operations, safety personnel, and executive leadership.
  • Scope Definition: Clearly define what systems, networks, and components will be tested to ensure no crucial elements are overlooked.
  • Risk Assessment: Conduct a thorough risk analysis to understand the potential impact of the pen test on the ICS environment.
  • Test Scheduling: Schedule tests for times that will minimize impact on production and safety.
  • Safety Measures and Contingencies: Develop and agree on safety measures and contingency plans in case of an unintended disruption.


In-depth knowledge about the target ICS is a precursor to any testing:

  • Data Gathering: Research the target environment, gather network diagrams, system manuals, and any relevant information.
  • Passive Scanning: Use non-intrusive methods to observe the system and understand its communications and behaviors.

Threat Modeling and Methodology Selection

  • Threat Modeling: Identify potential threats specific to the ICS environment, including both external and internal threat actors.
  • Methodology Selection: Choose a testing methodology that aligns with ICS security frameworks such as IEC 62443 or NIST SP 800-82. Tailor your methodology to the specifics of the environment.

System Baseline Analysis

  • Normal Operation Monitoring: Establish a baseline of normal operation to identify anomalous behavior during the test.
  • Performance Metrics: Determine critical system performance metrics such as response time and system load under normal conditions.

Active Testing

The active phase should proceed with caution to avoid disruption:

  • Vulnerability Scanning: Initially perform vulnerability scans using ICS-friendly tools to uncover known security weaknesses.
  • Penetration Attacks: These should be carefully chosen and executed to avoid impact on system availability or safety.
    • Network penetration techniques
    • Application-level exploits
    • Wireless network attacks (if applicable)

Post Exploitation and Analysis

  • Data Exfiltration Simulation: Test the potential for an attacker to extract sensitive data from the network without actually removing any data.
  • Control System Manipulation: Mimic control system command and control to determine if an attacker could gain control or cause a safety issue.
  • Persistence Mechanisms: Evaluate how an attacker might maintain access within the system.

Reporting and Feedback

  • Detailed Reporting: Document every finding with detailed descriptions, including the risk, impact, and potential remediation steps.
  • Root Cause Analysis: Go beyond the symptoms of the vulnerabilities and identify the systemic issues causing them.

Remediation and Follow-Up

  • Remediation Planning: Work with stakeholders to prioritize and plan the remediation of identified vulnerabilities.
  • Remediation Verification: Conduct follow-up testing to verify that vulnerabilities have been appropriately mitigated.

Continuous Improvement

  • Lessons Learned: Discuss the pen test process and outcomes to identify improvements for future assessments.
  • Training and Awareness: Based on the findings, develop training sessions for stakeholders to prevent similar vulnerabilities in the future.
  • Policy and Procedure Updates: Review and update security policies and procedures as necessary in light of test findings.


Pen testing ICS environments for critical infrastructure security is a complex and sensitive process. Although similar in some regards to traditional IT pen testing, it requires an added layer of caution and an in-depth understanding of both the technology and the potential ramifications of an intrusion or even of the testing itself. It’s not merely a technical endeavor but an integrated part of the broader risk management strategy for critical infrastructure protection.

Due to its critical nature, testing should be conducted by professionals specialized in ICS security, and with clear communication and collaboration with the asset owners and operators to ensure the safety and reliability of critical systems are maintained throughout the process.