While most cybersecurity discussion centers around protecting information technology networks, industrial systems face unique threats. Operational technology, or OT, comprises the hardware and software used to control physical processes.
Once considered distinct and disconnected from IT environments, OT is becoming increasingly connected, creating new vulnerabilities that must be addressed.
OT Systems Are More Vulnerable to Cyberattacks
Cyberattacks involving stolen data have long dominated the news, but a dangerous threat lurks in our nation’s critical infrastructure. The equipment and systems that monitor or control machinery, assets, and processes in industrial environments are known as operational technology (OT).
While OT systems were traditionally “air-gapped” from IT networks and ran in siloes away from the Internet, today, they are increasingly digital and Internet-connected. As they embrace new efficiencies and functionality, many OT assets must be connected to IT networks to transmit status updates or enable remote capabilities. It exposes them to historically irrelevant threats in these environments, such as opportunistic hackers, cyber terrorists, and state-sponsored actors.
These attacks have severe implications, including system failures, delays in production and operations, and financial losses. They are keeping CISOs up at night, and it is essential to understand how these attacks occur so that they can take steps to prevent them.
Many OT environments use legacy systems with outdated software that hasn’t been updated in years. It opens the door to vulnerabilities such as Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs). Work stoppages and limited security resources make it difficult for organizations to implement frequent patches in their OT environments. As a result, attackers who gain access to one OT device in a network are vulnerable to lateral movement and then exploit the vulnerability on other devices.
OT Systems Are More Complex
Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) have functioned independently for many years. While IT prioritizes safeguarding data integrity and confidentiality, OT ensures the smooth functioning of industrial processes without any interruptions. In case of a system failure, it affects production and may also potentially put human lives in danger. It makes OT systems more susceptible to cyberattacks; hence, securing operational technology from cyberattacks is essential.
For example, if hackers gain access to an OT device, they can create a botnet that will use the device as a command and control center to target other OT devices in a synchronized attack. These botnets can quickly overwhelm OT infrastructure and bring all of an organization’s operations to a halt.
In addition, OT environments often have older systems designed long before cybersecurity became a priority. As a result, these OT systems may not have security features that prevent attacks, such as securing endpoints with malware detection tools.
Additionally, OT devices communicate with one another using proprietary protocols that are incompatible with traditional IT security solutions. Therefore, gaining visibility into an OT environment is challenging and requires IT teams to deploy a zero-trust security strategy with multi-factor authentication, least privilege principles, and continuous monitoring. It also includes implementing API security to protect data transmitted between systems. In OT, a rogue API could look like a legitimate instruction modifying an industrial control parameter and is challenging to spot with traditional IT security solutions in place.
OT Systems Are More Connected
Historically, IT and OT environments were kept separate and insulated. However, convergence has now brought IT and OT together, which creates a range of undeniable business benefits for industrial organizations, including increased productivity, improved efficiencies, and cost savings. These new capabilities and efficiencies come with risks requiring specialized OT cybersecurity to mitigate.
Traditionally, the physical isolation of OT systems from IT networks protected these devices against threats. But now, as OT and IT continue to converge, many of these legacy systems are being connected to the Internet. This change has made them vulnerable to cyberattacks that can have far-reaching effects, from disruption of operations to equipment damage or even loss of life.
The heightened connectivity of OT devices also creates an expanded attack surface, which allows bad actors to move laterally between them. It exacerbates the risk of attack vectors, such as a compromised IT laptop that can bring malware into an off-network OT device.
Fortunately, the convergence of IT and OT can be addressed by using a centralized security platform that provides deep asset visibility, enforces segmentation, and monitors endpoints across your converged environment for a more practical approach to OT cybersecurity. Having complete visibility of connected assets, communication patterns, and network topologies is crucial for detecting potential threats in their early stages before they cause damage or disrupt your critical infrastructure.
OT Systems Are More Adaptable
With the advent of new-age threats, OT security must move away from detection and toward prevention. It means deploying a layered defense-in-depth approach to secure OT networks and ensure that all operations are carried out securely.
Cyberattacks against OT systems can lead to production interruptions, decreased employee productivity, lost sales, and even potential environmental disasters. For example, a cyberattack on an oil refinery can result in fires and explosions that cause irreparable damage to the environment and reputation of targeted companies. Such attacks also have the potential to endanger human lives.
Unlike IT systems, OT systems have long lifecycles and use proprietary software that may not be designed with security in mind. Furthermore, OT systems often need to be updated because doing so can interrupt processes or require the removal of components. It can leave them vulnerable to attack and make it harder to patch vulnerabilities.
Moreover, OT systems are often used for critical power, manufacturing, and transportation processes. These industries are highly interconnected and depend on uninterrupted communication between machines, sensors, and controllers. A cyberattack that targets these systems can cause production delays, missed deadlines, and damaged customer relationships. In addition, it can threaten the safety of staff and local communities, which can negatively impact the economy.