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OT Cybersecurity: Safeguard Our Infrastracture

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What is Operational Technology?

Operational Technology (OT) is the backbone of our modern world as we know it today. Think about the daily operations of a factory, the precise control of our power grids, and even the supply of clean water to our homes. All of these modern capabilities are made possible and efficient due to OT systems. Unlike Information Technology (IT), which revolves around systems that process and store data, OT focuses on the physical machinery and processes which drive key industries including manufacturing, energy, and transportation.

Each component of an OT system serves a critical purpose in ensuring the continuity of industrial operations. OT systems are typically made up of:

Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs): Devices that control industrial processes through execution of programmed instructions.
Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs): Interfaces that allow human users to interact with the control system
Sensors and Actuators: Devices that monitor the physical environment through collection of data, and then perform actions according to input from the physical environment.

The various subsets of OT system types include Industrial Control Systems (ICS), which manage factory equipment; Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, which monitor and control industrial operations; and Distributed Control Systems (DCS), which automate processes. These systems are essential for keeping our modern infrastructure up and running.

It is imperative that measures are taken to secure the availability of our OT systems, as an interruption to these systems would be disruptive to our day to day lives, and potentially catastrophic. To put things into perspective, can you imagine what your day would look like if your power grid went down for a prolonged period? What if the supply of clean water to your home was disrupted, are you ready for the chaos that will ensue? Both of these examples as well as other OT security incidents has the potential to cause loss of human life.

In this blog, we’ll discuss the importance of securing OT systems, best practices to align with, as well as challenges faced when safeguarding these indispensable systems.

The Convergence of IT and OT

Traditionally, OT environments were intended to be contained within their own highly secured network, without the ability to communicate externally. Today, the boundary between IT and OT is increasingly blurred with modern industrial operations relying on the convergence of IT and OT to enhance efficiency, optimize performance, and reduce costs. Additionally, the rise of adding network connectivity to devices and appliances that were traditionally not connected to the internet has further accelerated this convergence. This shift to network connectivity dependency has introduced the terms “Internet of Things (IOT) and “Industrial Internet of Things” (IIOT), which has brought numerous benefits but also introduced significant cybersecurity concerns.

Cybersecurity of OT Systems

As opposed to IT Security which focuses on the protection and integrity of data, OT cybersecurity prioritizes the availability of OT systems as a cyber attack on these systems is certain to disrupt business operations, cause physical damage, and endanger public safety.

Security Concerns around OT Systems

OT systems were designed with a specific purpose in mind and were not originally thought of as traditional computers as we know it, therefore security aspects of the design were not a first thought. As a result, the only security that many of these systems have is due to bolted-on security due to security as an afterthought. Also, many of the standard security best practices are often not conducted on this equipment due a multitude of factors such as the difficulty of patching OT systems, accommodating downtime hours on these critical systems that need to always be available.

As a result, OT systems are notorious for having vulnerabilities relating to unpatched software, poor network segmentation, lack of authentication due to sharing of credentials, and lack of standard security protocols. These weaknesses present on OT systems in addition to the potential of causing disaster make these systems ideal targets for cyberattacks. A closely related example is the widely known Stuxnet attack which exploited vulnerabilities in PLCs to sabotage a nation-state’s nuclear program, highlighting the potential consequences of OT cybersecurity breaches.

Impact on Critical Infrastructure

OT systems are fundamental to critical infrastructure sectors, including energy, water, transportation, and manufacturing. Security incidents in industries have potentially disastrous consequences, which include but are not limited to disruption of the power grid, contamination of our water supply, and interference with transportation systems. Defending OT environments is critical when it comes to ensuring our security.

Reputational Damage and Financial Loss

Due to the need for OT systems to always be available to ensure the smooth operations of an organization, the Cyberattacks on OT systems can lead to significant financial losses due to downtown of vital operations, costs associated with damage repair, and loss of productivity. Additionally, the less obvious but major consequence is damage to reputation which is harder to quantify, and also difficult to recover from.

Noncompliance with Regulatory Requirements

Various regulations and standards govern OT cybersecurity, and falling out of compliance with these regulations can lead to further losses due to regulatory fines, and further reputational damage.

Challenges within the OT Environment

Legacy Systems

The devices that make up an OT environment are often legacy systems that are difficult to patch and secure due to the lack of modern security features, and outdated software and hardware which makes them more susceptible to vulnerability exploitation.

Skills Gap

There is a significant knowledge gap amongst cybersecurity personnel assigned to secure IT systems. Unlike IT Security which emphasizes the security of data and integrity, OT security personnel should be trained and familiar with specifically securing OT systems which require prioritization of availability. Also when organizations assign IT staff the responsibility of securing OT environments, there is often a knowledge gap when it comes to the protocols and communication methods leveraged by OT systems. Considering that OT systems often require uninterrupted operation and low latency, it is difficult to implement cybersecurity measures while also maintaining efficiency of operations.

Integration with IT Systems

The recently increasing IT/OT convergence brings about complexities in security, as OT environments are no longer “air gapped” and can be accessed from the IT network, or even the Cloud. As a result, any vulnerabilities present within the IT network as a result affect the OT network, and vice-versa. If the integration of IT/OT environments is not achieved properly, the security implications are potentially disastrous.

OT Cybersecurity Best Practices

Vulnerability Management

A formal vulnerability program to perform discovery of assets within an OT network, build an inventory of active managed and unmanaged (rogue) systems, and identify and prioritize OT-system specific vulnerabilities is a backbone to establishing a security program for OT.

Risk Assessment and Management

Implementing thorough risk management strategies will ease the prioritization and mitigation of risks. Network Segmentation Maintaining network segmentation of OT networks from IT networks will ensure that a cyber incident in one network does not affect the other.

Patch Management

Establishing a coherent Patch Management profile will ensure that vulnerabilities due to outdated software are addressed, and apply additional measures to address legacy systems.

Access Control and Monitoring

Stringent access control, such as multi-factor authentication and role-based access, are crucial for ensuring all access can be audited, and more important to prevent unauthorized access. Implementation of logging and monitoring systems such as SIEM solutions aid the identification and response to anomalies in real-time.

Incident Response Planning

Ensure that OT specific incident response plans are implemented so that organizations are prepared to handle OT cybersecurity incidents effectively. For example in the event of a security incident, an OT system cannot be contained and isolated on a network the way an IT system can be. OT cybersecurity incident responders should be trained and conscious of how an OT incident is addressed. Also, ensure that OT and IT teams can collaborate effectively during such events.

OT Security Awareness Training Programs

Security awareness training initiatives for staff on best practices for addressing OT security, and engaging in periodic training simulations will help foster a security-aware culture within the organization. Continuous training specifically for OT Security ensures that personnel tasked with securing OT systems are up-to-date with the latest threats and mitigation techniques within this niche space.

Combat Emerging Threats

Innovation of New Technologies

The innovation of new technologies is also resulting in the advancements of threats, which are increasingly targeting OT systems. Vice versa, we must leverage the new technologies that are available in order to keep up with and address rising threats which now include artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and blockchain.

Collaboration is Essential

To improve OT cybersecurity across a variety of industry sectors, collaborative efforts between government agencies, industry stakeholders, and academia must be fostered in order to move toward a secure OT landscape, and develop more effective standards, policies, and processes to combat rising OT threats.

Conclusion

It is imperative for organizations to prioritize and improve our OT Security, in order to protect our industrial operations, critical infrastructure, and public safety. Organizations must invest in the necessary resources and training, maintain best practices, and keep up-to-date on emerging threats and technologies, to protect their OT environments from cyber risks. With consideration that the OT cybersecurity landscape is constantly evolving, organizations must ensure continuous improvement and vigilance within their security programs. As technology advances, so do the attack vectors, highlighting the need to stay proactive and adaptive to latest threats.

​What is Operational Technology?

Operational Technology (OT) is the backbone of our modern world as we know it today. Think about the daily operations of a factory, the precise control of our power grids, and even the supply of clean water to our homes. All of these modern capabilities are made possible and efficient due to OT systems. Unlike Information Technology (IT), which revolves around systems that process and store data, OT focuses on the physical machinery and processes which drive key industries including manufacturing, energy, and transportation.

Each component of an OT system serves a critical purpose in ensuring the continuity of industrial operations. OT systems are typically made up of:

Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs): Devices that control industrial processes through execution of programmed instructions.
Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs): Interfaces that allow human users to interact with the control system
Sensors and Actuators: Devices that monitor the physical environment through collection of data, and then perform actions according to input from the physical environment.

The various subsets of OT system types include Industrial Control Systems (ICS), which manage factory equipment; Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, which monitor and control industrial operations; and Distributed Control Systems (DCS), which automate processes. These systems are essential for keeping our modern infrastructure up and running.

It is imperative that measures are taken to secure the availability of our OT systems, as an interruption to these systems would be disruptive to our day to day lives, and potentially catastrophic. To put things into perspective, can you imagine what your day would look like if your power grid went down for a prolonged period? What if the supply of clean water to your home was disrupted, are you ready for the chaos that will ensue? Both of these examples as well as other OT security incidents has the potential to cause loss of human life.

In this blog, we’ll discuss the importance of securing OT systems, best practices to align with, as well as challenges faced when safeguarding these indispensable systems.

The Convergence of IT and OT

Traditionally, OT environments were intended to be contained within their own highly secured network, without the ability to communicate externally. Today, the boundary between IT and OT is increasingly blurred with modern industrial operations relying on the convergence of IT and OT to enhance efficiency, optimize performance, and reduce costs. Additionally, the rise of adding network connectivity to devices and appliances that were traditionally not connected to the internet has further accelerated this convergence. This shift to network connectivity dependency has introduced the terms “Internet of Things (IOT) and “Industrial Internet of Things” (IIOT), which has brought numerous benefits but also introduced significant cybersecurity concerns.

Cybersecurity of OT Systems

As opposed to IT Security which focuses on the protection and integrity of data, OT cybersecurity prioritizes the availability of OT systems as a cyber attack on these systems is certain to disrupt business operations, cause physical damage, and endanger public safety.

Security Concerns around OT Systems

OT systems were designed with a specific purpose in mind and were not originally thought of as traditional computers as we know it, therefore security aspects of the design were not a first thought. As a result, the only security that many of these systems have is due to bolted-on security due to security as an afterthought. Also, many of the standard security best practices are often not conducted on this equipment due a multitude of factors such as the difficulty of patching OT systems, accommodating downtime hours on these critical systems that need to always be available.

As a result, OT systems are notorious for having vulnerabilities relating to unpatched software, poor network segmentation, lack of authentication due to sharing of credentials, and lack of standard security protocols. These weaknesses present on OT systems in addition to the potential of causing disaster make these systems ideal targets for cyberattacks. A closely related example is the widely known Stuxnet attack which exploited vulnerabilities in PLCs to sabotage a nation-state’s nuclear program, highlighting the potential consequences of OT cybersecurity breaches.

Impact on Critical Infrastructure

OT systems are fundamental to critical infrastructure sectors, including energy, water, transportation, and manufacturing. Security incidents in industries have potentially disastrous consequences, which include but are not limited to disruption of the power grid, contamination of our water supply, and interference with transportation systems. Defending OT environments is critical when it comes to ensuring our security.

Reputational Damage and Financial Loss

Due to the need for OT systems to always be available to ensure the smooth operations of an organization, the Cyberattacks on OT systems can lead to significant financial losses due to downtown of vital operations, costs associated with damage repair, and loss of productivity. Additionally, the less obvious but major consequence is damage to reputation which is harder to quantify, and also difficult to recover from.

Noncompliance with Regulatory Requirements

Various regulations and standards govern OT cybersecurity, and falling out of compliance with these regulations can lead to further losses due to regulatory fines, and further reputational damage.

Challenges within the OT Environment

Legacy Systems

The devices that make up an OT environment are often legacy systems that are difficult to patch and secure due to the lack of modern security features, and outdated software and hardware which makes them more susceptible to vulnerability exploitation.

Skills Gap

There is a significant knowledge gap amongst cybersecurity personnel assigned to secure IT systems. Unlike IT Security which emphasizes the security of data and integrity, OT security personnel should be trained and familiar with specifically securing OT systems which require prioritization of availability. Also when organizations assign IT staff the responsibility of securing OT environments, there is often a knowledge gap when it comes to the protocols and communication methods leveraged by OT systems. Considering that OT systems often require uninterrupted operation and low latency, it is difficult to implement cybersecurity measures while also maintaining efficiency of operations.

Integration with IT Systems

The recently increasing IT/OT convergence brings about complexities in security, as OT environments are no longer “air gapped” and can be accessed from the IT network, or even the Cloud. As a result, any vulnerabilities present within the IT network as a result affect the OT network, and vice-versa. If the integration of IT/OT environments is not achieved properly, the security implications are potentially disastrous.

OT Cybersecurity Best Practices

Vulnerability Management

A formal vulnerability program to perform discovery of assets within an OT network, build an inventory of active managed and unmanaged (rogue) systems, and identify and prioritize OT-system specific vulnerabilities is a backbone to establishing a security program for OT.

Risk Assessment and Management

Implementing thorough risk management strategies will ease the prioritization and mitigation of risks. Network Segmentation Maintaining network segmentation of OT networks from IT networks will ensure that a cyber incident in one network does not affect the other.

Patch Management

Establishing a coherent Patch Management profile will ensure that vulnerabilities due to outdated software are addressed, and apply additional measures to address legacy systems.

Access Control and Monitoring

Stringent access control, such as multi-factor authentication and role-based access, are crucial for ensuring all access can be audited, and more important to prevent unauthorized access. Implementation of logging and monitoring systems such as SIEM solutions aid the identification and response to anomalies in real-time.

Incident Response Planning

Ensure that OT specific incident response plans are implemented so that organizations are prepared to handle OT cybersecurity incidents effectively. For example in the event of a security incident, an OT system cannot be contained and isolated on a network the way an IT system can be. OT cybersecurity incident responders should be trained and conscious of how an OT incident is addressed. Also, ensure that OT and IT teams can collaborate effectively during such events.

OT Security Awareness Training Programs

Security awareness training initiatives for staff on best practices for addressing OT security, and engaging in periodic training simulations will help foster a security-aware culture within the organization. Continuous training specifically for OT Security ensures that personnel tasked with securing OT systems are up-to-date with the latest threats and mitigation techniques within this niche space.

Combat Emerging Threats

Innovation of New Technologies

The innovation of new technologies is also resulting in the advancements of threats, which are increasingly targeting OT systems. Vice versa, we must leverage the new technologies that are available in order to keep up with and address rising threats which now include artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and blockchain.

Collaboration is Essential

To improve OT cybersecurity across a variety of industry sectors, collaborative efforts between government agencies, industry stakeholders, and academia must be fostered in order to move toward a secure OT landscape, and develop more effective standards, policies, and processes to combat rising OT threats.

Conclusion

It is imperative for organizations to prioritize and improve our OT Security, in order to protect our industrial operations, critical infrastructure, and public safety. Organizations must invest in the necessary resources and training, maintain best practices, and keep up-to-date on emerging threats and technologies, to protect their OT environments from cyber risks. With consideration that the OT cybersecurity landscape is constantly evolving, organizations must ensure continuous improvement and vigilance within their security programs. As technology advances, so do the attack vectors, highlighting the need to stay proactive and adaptive to latest threats.  

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