Operational Technology Security – Proven Strategies to Protect Against External Threats

Operational Technology Security

Operational technology (OT) cyber security is often handled differently than IT security. OT devices are prone to attacks that can disrupt production, cause human safety issues, and result in significant monetary loss.

OT networks were traditionally air-gapped from IT systems to prevent breaches. However, the convergence of OT and IT networks has changed this. To mitigate risks, OT security best practices include:

Establish a Zero-Trust Architecture

Unlike IT, operational technology (OT) infrastructure requires specialized security policies and controls. While the OT air gap once protected legacy systems from cyberattacks, attackers have figured out how to bridge this disconnect and exploit OT systems. This is why it is important to establish a Zero Trust architecture in OT environments.

Zero Trust uses the principle of never trust, always verify to ensure that every communication between devices on the network is suspect until proven trustworthy. This approach separates the public Internet from your corporate networks, so traffic between your OT network and any external sources cannot travel directly to your most critical assets.

When implementing Zero Trust in OT environments, it is best to start small. A micro-perimeter built using a next-generation firewall can help you segment the OT network and protect the most sensitive assets. Then, you can add additional OT security technologies like identity and access management (IAM) and multi-factor authentication.

Prioritizing external threat safeguards for operational technology based on their likelihood of exploitation is a smart move. Instead of worrying about the potential damage that may result from nation-state attacks, most OT security and risk management leaders should focus on the possibility of disgruntled employees using their access to manipulate OT systems in ways that could physically harm humans. By doing so, they can build a strong case to justify funding an appropriate control framework.

Invest in Advanced Threat Detection

Detecting advanced threats requires sophisticated security analytics. These tools identify patterns and anomalies, making it easier for security teams to spot suspicious behavior in the face of massive data. They also can evade signature-based detection methods by being polymorphic, meaning they change or mutate to avoid detection, and stealthy, hiding in plain sight using obfuscation techniques.

Industrial systems are vulnerable to many attacks, including malware, ransomware, and phishing. These attacks can cost the company more than just money. They can lead to loss of business, compromise of sensitive information, and even damage to critical infrastructure that can impact the safety of communities and economies.

To combat these risks, organizations should invest in OT security solutions that protect against a wide range of vulnerabilities. It includes vulnerability management, which identifies and prioritizes potential risk factors to prevent adversaries from exploiting them. It also helps organizations develop more targeted and effective security strategies.

With limited visibility and monitoring, OT networks are susceptible to unintentional threats, malicious insiders, and disgruntled employees who can wreak havoc on the organization’s infrastructure. Additionally, as OT systems become increasingly integrated with IT networks, they expose themselves to new vulnerabilities and attack vectors. OT security solutions must be tightly integrated with IT security solutions to provide comprehensive coverage against various threats.

Implement Identity and Access Management (IAM)

In most cyberattacks, attackers must obtain privileged credentials like usernames and passwords to succeed. Identity and Access Management (IAM) processes focus on managing user identities, which involve two key elements: authentication (Authn) and authorization (Authz). Authentication is verifying if a user is who they claim to be. It also determines the level of access that the user is authorized to have based on their privileges to perform certain actions, view information, or modify settings on a system or network.

In OT environments, the challenge is heightened as industrial communications use proprietary protocols that IT security tools cannot decode, and a wide range of devices are used to control or monitor a process. In addition, OT systems are often air-gapped and have strict safety regulations to follow. It makes deploying common approaches taken for IT in OT security challenging.

For example, a privileged account management (PAM) solution enables organizations to protect their assets by enforcing the principle of least privilege over access to OT devices by limiting the number of people with administrative rights, eliminating default and embedded passwords, and centralized, active monitoring and governance of privileged credentials. It allows OT security teams to reduce risk by providing secure, centralized access controls for OT ‘controller’ servers, IoT and IIoT devices, user devices, and OT application servers.

However, the effectiveness of IAM solutions can be compromised by human factors such as communication failures between IT and OT, mishandling of credentials, or using poor quality cloud service providers. IAM processes, standards, and policies must be documented and understood by all parties, from IT and OT security teams to stakeholders and system analysts, to implement them effectively and efficiently.

Enable Remote Monitoring

OT security is essential for manufacturing, oil and gas, and critical infrastructure. These industries rely on OT to manage, monitor, and control their operational processes. A cyberattack that targets an OT network can disrupt production, compromise quality, and ultimately endanger human lives. In addition, a breach can damage a company’s reputation and lead to financial loss.

To mitigate threats, an organization must take a holistic approach that includes monitoring remote workers and establishing secure access protocols. In addition, a zero-trust strategy should be implemented along with multi-factor authentication and least privilege principles. A continuous monitoring platform can help to identify unauthorized changes to an OT network and notify the relevant stakeholders in real-time.

OT security has become more important than ever due to the convergence of IT and industrial environments. This convergence creates a larger attack surface vulnerable to known and unknown threats. Moreover, traditional IT professionals need to become more familiar with the complexities of OT systems, making it challenging to assess and respond to these threats.

Threats to OT systems come from various sources, including disgruntled employees, hacktivists, and nation-state actors. Disgruntled employees and hacktivists are motivated by a desire for revenge or to expose their employer’s bad practices. Meanwhile, nation-state attacks are designed to cause physical harm or to achieve a political objective.

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