Enhancing OT Security Without Disrupting Operations

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What is Operational Technology?

Cybersecurity has come a long way in the recent past. Its importance is felt in all aspects of modern life, both personal and industrial. The current digital and network advancements are steadily pushing Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) towards integration. While IT systems interact with each other for data-centric computing, OT systems involve hardware and software that monitors or controls physical devices and processes to detect or cause changes in an industrial environment or enterprise.   

OT plays a significant role in Industrial Control Systems (ICS) and encompasses a wide variety of programmable systems such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems (SCADA) and Distributed Control Systems (DCS). These are found in many aspects of the environments we interact with daily, which makes keeping these systems secure a top priority.  

Industrial systems traditionally have relied on human monitoring and management through proprietary control protocols and software. Today, however, more industrial systems are automating these processes in a bid to boost efficiency and deliver better and smarter analytics through the convergence of OT and IT systems. This fills in the  gap that previously that isolated OT from IT. This bridge ensures that the information passed down to the people, sensors, devices, and machines is accurate and on time.  

How IoT Adoption Affects OT Systems

Anyone who has been around long enough to see how the internet and modern technology have changed the world can attest to its benefits. The shift to making most aspects of human life ‘smart’ has had both positive and negative effects. In a bid to make OT systems more efficient and reliable, most people have adopted integrated enterprise software and analytic data services. This makes processes and systems such as cooling efficient and also monitoring devices easy and more cost-effective. 

This action comes with one main downside; an increase in security risks. The connection of these systems leaves industrial networks and components vulnerable to OT security deficiencies such as lack of encryption, buffer overflow, backdoors and other tailored attacks on physical components. 

The digital attack surface also grows massively. For instance, in a configuration where things go through a switch, it would be difficult to monitor the traffic or detect changes. This makes the network vulnerable to targeted attacks. Some economies or communities could face utter devastation should their industrial systems be attacked due to the high cost of some of the industrial equipment.  

On the brighter side, industrial networks can be protected without risking non-compliance or disruption of operations. While IT security deals with data flow and its protection, OT security is focused on the safety and efficiency of industrial operations. By implementing proper security strategies and policies that ensure the visibility of all network control traffic, you can effectively reduce security risks and protect operations. 

Modern OT Security Approaches

The integration of OT and IT systems has led to the development of OT security. This is done in a bid to protect lives and assets and ensure that there is no operating downtime leading to production losses. The common standards and practices for secure OT systems are detailed by bodies such as The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the UK’s National Cyber Security Center. Their reports have detailed information on OT risk management, vulnerabilities, recommended practices and guidelines. These form the framework for different ways to secure OT systems.

When protecting OT systems, one must first understand the vulnerabilities that they face. Now that OT, IT, and IoT systems have become part of an indistinguishable system, any margins of error could mean a collapse in the whole network. Some of the ways OT networks are compromised by malignant elements include:   

  • Unauthorized Changes: This could consist of disabling safety sensors and alarms. This also increases the risk of bad actors inputting instructions that could lead to downtime. 
  • Interference With Critical Infrastructure: Access to sites and operational systems should only be granted to authorized personnel. Interference of control units and equipment protection systems could lead to irreparable damage, 
  • Manipulation or Modification of Sent Information: Hackers use this technique to disguise unauthorized changes and breaches as they penetrate the system. 

It is always essential to understand that attacks could come from within. It could be rogue employees with infected USBs or even poor coding. This means that industrial security has to be both preventive and offensive. Apart from the conventional security protocols, OT protection must be based on a fully visible IT/OT infrastructure. This means employing monitoring and analysis tools that can detect even the most minute anomalies.  

Best Practices for OT Security

An efficient OT security plan should incorporate three main levels of protection and include the following practices: 

Using Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFW) in OT Networks

Traditional firewalls had their drawbacks in terms of network speed, awareness limitations and their inability to adapt to new threats. Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFWs), on the other hand, offer the best security against threats by giving you complete control of the industrial systems. These firewalls are made to meet any configuration in the ICS for maximum visibility and monitoring. Organized architecture in terms of control ensures efficient and uninterrupted workflow.  

Having Efficient System Restore Plans

Should there be any breaches or failures of certain components within the OT network, there should be protocols to restore functionality without delaying operations. The SRP should take the least amount of time. Moreover, despite the conditions or challenges faced, the industrial environment should be designed in a way that ensures operations can continue running, awaiting restoration. This means enabling the workforce access to manual control and emergency operations.  

Risk-Based Vulnerability Management

The RBVM system provides comprehensive information on possible threats and the extent of their effects. In collaboration with network analytics such as mapping constant monitoring, it is possible to anticipate the risks that the threats pose and prepare the security team with efficient responses or possible SRP.  

These layers of protection also need to be coupled with other general security practices. For instance, access to OT network devices and systems should be restricted to unauthorized parties. This can be achieved by separating the cooperate network from the OT network. On the other hand, remote access solutions should be available.  

Remote access is a contentious security measure. One of the channels used by bad actors is the backdoors that remote access leaves. To counter this vulnerability, remote access sessions can be restricted and monitored by time and user activity. When it comes to safeguarding data, the best solution is encryption. Backups and restore points also need to be in place. Using these tools and security protocols means that the OT network remains secure while the industrial environment remains fully operational. 

What the Future Holds for OT Security

The best part of technology is its nature and tendency to evolve. This means that cybersecurity will only get better. At the moment, OT security faces a couple of minor setbacks primarily due to its nature. A fact that is evident in the design of these systems. Since they are meant to run for years, the focus is placed more on their reliability rather than security. As more OT systems are connected to a network, their lack of initial security and use of legacy protocols poses significant risks.  

As mentioned, however, the beauty of technology is adaptation. To maneuver these challenges, businesses are adding newer devices to their OT enterprises and taking OT cybersecurity seriously. It is clear that the future of OT security is bright due to the growing investment in OT security. Professionals in this sector are increasing in number every day after its necessity was realized.  

Cloud technology has also improved the industrial environment by connecting workplaces. This game-changer is poised to boost production and ensure efficiency while still maintaining low production costs. 

Controversial as it may sound, even hacking and other unauthorized breaches help increase OT security. This inverse effect is due to the fact that by revealing the gaps and vulnerabilities in the system, light is shed on the areas that require patching or even upgrading.

Final Thoughts on OT Security

In conclusion, every party involved in this industry must acknowledge the need for upgraded and efficient OT security solutions. There is a need to pool resources and specialize in OT Cybersecurity if its development is to be sustainable and future-proof.

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