Securing the Complex Digital Backbone of an Airport: Challenges and Possibilities

Guest Author by Guest Author | Jun 8, 2023
By Tara Mulrooney, CTO & Vice President, Technology & Innovation, Edmonton International Airport

Airports are intricate ecosystems that rely on interconnected networks to function smoothly. With the increasing digitization of airport services and the reliance on technology and automation, the cybersecurity risks associated with airports have become more significant. Ensuring the security and stability of the airport network is crucial to maintaining smooth operations, supporting the ecosystem, and improving the passenger experience.

The airport network supports the airport’s operations, such as physical security, baggage handling, and passenger processing, and it also serves as a host for partners, tenants, and retail providers. In other words, the airport network is the foundation of a broader digital community that includes airlines, ground handlers, retailers, and government agencies.

Digitalization has transformed airports from physical infrastructure into digital hubs. As such, the design and security of the airport network have become increasingly important. Any disruption caused by a cyberattack can have far-reaching consequences, including financial losses, operational disruptions, and reputational damage.

One of the significant challenges that airports face in securing their digital backbone is the complexity of the network. Municipal-type networks host multiple stakeholders, which can introduce vulnerabilities and increase the risk of cyberattacks. In addition, outdated systems can be difficult to patch and maintain, and are exposed to cyber vulnerabilities.

A holistic approach to managing the network

To address these challenges, airports must adopt a holistic approach to managing all the assets on the network. To do this, the technology and cyber team must understand how each party plans to use emerging technologies to best design, protect, and provide the capacity and service levels they need now and into the future. Clear policies, rules, and controls must be established and enforced for all participants in the airport ecosystem. These policies should include access controls, data sharing, incident reporting, and incident response guidelines. In addition, all stakeholders must be held accountable for their compliance with these policies.

Airports should require all stakeholders to adhere to robust and ever-evolving cybersecurity standards and best practices. This includes regular security awareness training, strong passwords and multi-factor authentication, and strict access controls. Moreover, airports should prioritize investments in cybersecurity technology, personnel, and training to ensure they have the necessary resources to protect their critical systems and data.

Proactive cybersecurity to mitigate risks

To mitigate the risks associated with digital transformation, airports must adopt a proactive cybersecurity approach, including implementing a continuous monitoring program to identify and respond to potential threats in real time. This program should include regular vulnerability assessments, penetration testing, and threat-hunting exercises to detect and address vulnerabilities before they are exploited. Establishing a community of practice and standards for all participants in the airport ecosystem can also be helpful. Regular forums for discussion and collaboration, such as cybersecurity working groups or steering committees, can be an effective way to achieve this. Clear communication is essential to managing the politics related to cybersecurity in the airport ecosystem. All stakeholders must understand the importance of cybersecurity and their role in ensuring the safety and security of the airport network.

Benefits of a secure airport network

In conclusion, the network of an airport is as crucial as the physical infrastructure of the terminal itself, serving as the foundation for operational efficiencies, passenger experience, and digital transformation. As airports evolve and adopt new technologies, securing their complex digital backbone becomes increasingly critical.

By implementing a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy that includes network segmentation, policy and control enforcement, and proactive risk management, airports can ensure the security and stability of their network, maintain smooth operations, and support the ecosystem. In addition, a collaborative community of practice that establishes standards and guidelines for all participants can also be invaluable in protecting this critical infrastructure. Ultimately, securing the digital backbone of an airport is vital to providing safe and reliable aviation services, facilitating economic growth, and meeting the evolving needs of passengers and stakeholders alike.

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Tara Mulrooney is the CTO and Vice President, Technology & Innovation at Edmonton International Airport (YEG). Tara is accountable for enabling the Innovation Expansion for the organization and for building an information-based platform using IOT, Messaging and Data. She is excited to bring her two decades of experience to the aviation sector and to continue to build the reputation of YEG as a leader in airport innovation.

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