Brace for Impact: Your 2024 OT Cyber Incident Response Blueprint

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OT Cyber Incident Response: From Strategy to Response 

Brief: We’ll walk you through the critical steps of detecting, containing, eradicating, and recovering from an OT cyber incident. By the end, you’ll have a rock-solid OT Cyber Incident Response Plan to protect your industrial control systems (ICS) and minimize the impact of any cyber threat.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
– Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

In the world of operational technology (OT), a cyber incident is not a matter of if, but when. 

And while we value the ability for OT systems to connect, “talk” and… work together, recent developments in cloud solutions and connected devices have opened up a myriad of threats to traditional OT systems. 

The consequences can be catastrophic – from production downtime to physical damage and safety risks.

We’re finding that cyber security needs of the many business stakeholders don’t outweigh those needs, but demand a solution that satisfies all parties. 

But fear not, because this blueprint is your lifeline. 

But before we start, is this REALLY a problem? 

Let’s look at some recent events with very real OT implications. 

Recent Canadian Attacks with OT Implications 

Recent cyber security incidents involving the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Global Affairs Canada highlight a stark truth: cyber attacks on Canadian critical infrastructure, including OT, is increasing. 

Cyber Attack on RCMP

The RCMP revealed on a Friday that their network had been targeted by a cyberattack. By the following Monday, they were still dealing with this issue. The RCMP spokesperson stated they were actively managing the situation and assessing the extent of the breach with other Canadian government agencies.

Although the attack did not affect the RCMP’s operational capabilities or the safety of Canadians, their website was temporarily unavailable over the weekend. The RCMP highlighted that despite the seriousness of the breach, their quick response and mitigation strategies showed their preparedness in handling such threats.

Cyber Attack on Global Affairs Canada

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) started investigating a data breach resulting from a cyberattack on Global Affairs Canada’s internal network. Unauthorized individuals accessed the department’s virtual private network (VPN), compromising personal information of users, including employees. The investigation was prompted by multiple complaints received by the OPC about the incident.

Key Takeaways

Both incidents were actively managed by Canadian authorities, with efforts to determine the full scope and impact. The RCMP is working with various government agencies to address the breach, while quick and effective response measures were highlighted by the RCMP as critical in managing the incident.

The cyberattacks on the RCMP and Global Affairs Canada highlight several key aspects relevant to OT security. 

Here’s how these incidents tie into the broader context of OT security:

Broader Cyber Security Environment

The types of cyber threats faced by RCMP and Global Affairs Canada, such as unauthorized access and data breaches, are also relevant to OT environments. OT systems can similarly be targeted by cybercriminals using tactics like phishing, ransomware, and exploiting vulnerabilities.

The incidents underscore the importance of having robust incident response strategies, which are crucial for both IT and OT security. Quick detection, response, and mitigation can limit the damage caused by cyberattacks.

Impact on Critical Infrastructure

Just as the RCMP and Global Affairs Canada are critical to national security and international relations, OT systems are critical to industrial operations and public utilities. An attack on OT systems could disrupt essential services, similar to how the RCMP’s operations were at risk.

The assurance that the RCMP’s operational capabilities and public safety were not compromised is an important aspect of OT security as well. Ensuring that industrial operations remain safe and operational despite cyber threats is a key goal of OT security.

Data Breach Concerns

The compromise of personal information in the Global Affairs Canada incident highlights the sensitivity of data handled by governmental and industrial systems. OT systems often manage proprietary and sensitive operational data, which can be a target for cybercriminals.

The unauthorized access to Global Affairs Canada’s VPN emphasizes the need for secure remote access solutions in OT environments, especially as more industrial operations use remote monitoring and control systems.

Swiftly Detecting OT Cyber Incidents: Your First Line of Defense


  • OT cyber security faces unique challenges due to legacy systems and real-time operations
  • Specialized monitoring tools and incident response plans are crucial for swift detection
  • Proper detection mechanisms can minimize the impact of cyber incidents on industrial environments

Understanding the Unique Challenges of OT Cyber Security

Industrial control systems (ICS) and operational technology (OT) environments have distinct security requirements compared to traditional IT systems. These differences stem from the unique characteristics of OT, such as the use of legacy systems, proprietary protocols, and the need for real-time operations. 

Unlike IT systems, which prioritize data confidentiality and integrity, OT systems focus on availability and reliability to ensure continuous production and safety.

Legacy Systems and Proprietary Protocols

Many OT environments rely on legacy systems that were designed decades ago, often without built-in security features. These systems may run on outdated operating systems or use proprietary protocols that are not well-understood by IT security professionals. 

This lack of standardization and interoperability makes it challenging to implement traditional IT security solutions in OT environments.

Real-Time Operations and Physical Consequences

OT systems control and monitor physical processes in real-time, such as manufacturing lines, power grids, and transportation systems. Any disruption or delay in these processes can lead to significant financial losses, equipment damage, or even safety risks to personnel and the environment. 

As a result, OT systems have strict requirements for availability and responsiveness, making it difficult to apply security updates or patches without extensive testing and planning.

Implementing Robust OT Incident Detection Mechanisms

To effectively detect cyber incidents in OT environments, organizations must deploy specialized security monitoring tools that understand industrial protocols and can identify anomalies in system behaviour. These tools should be able to analyze network traffic, log files, and sensor data to detect potential threats or unauthorized activities.

Establishing a Baseline of Normal OT Network Behavior

One of the key steps in implementing effective OT incident detection is establishing a baseline of normal network behavior. This involves monitoring and analyzing the communication patterns, traffic flows, and system interactions within the OT environment over a period of time.

By understanding what is considered “normal” for a specific OT network, security teams can more easily identify deviations or anomalies that may indicate a cyber incident.

Integrating OT Security Monitoring with SIEM Systems

To gain a holistic view of the organization’s security posture, it is essential to integrate OT security monitoring with existing security information and event management (SIEM) systems.

This integration allows security teams to correlate events and alerts from both IT and OT environments, enabling faster detection and response to potential threats. 

However, it is important to ensure that the SIEM system is properly configured to handle the unique characteristics of OT data and protocols.

Developing an OT-Specific Incident Response Plan

In addition to implementing robust detection mechanisms, organizations must also develop a dedicated incident response plan that addresses the unique aspects of OT environments. This plan should define clear roles and responsibilities for OT incident response teams, including IT, OT, and management personnel.

Defining Roles and Responsibilities

An effective OT incident response plan should clearly outline the roles and responsibilities of each team member involved in the response process. This includes identifying who is responsible for investigating and analyzing incidents, communicating with stakeholders, and implementing containment and recovery measures. It is crucial to involve both IT and OT personnel in the response team, as they bring different expertise and perspectives to the table.

Establishing Communication Channels and Escalation Procedures

To ensure swift and effective incident response, organizations must establish clear communication channels and escalation procedures. This involves defining how information about incidents will be shared among response team members, as well as with management, legal, and public relations teams. Your incident response plan should also include criteria for escalating incidents based on their severity and potential impact on the organization.

By implementing robust OT incident detection mechanisms and developing an OT-specific incident response plan, your business can significantly enhance your ability to swiftly detect and respond to cyber incidents in your industrial environments. This proactive approach not only helps minimize the impact of incidents but also demonstrates the organization’s commitment to securing its critical infrastructure and protecting its assets, personnel, and reputation.

Effective OT Incident Containment Strategies to Minimize Impact

  • Contain the threat by isolating affected systems and preserving evidence
  • Collaborate with IT and incident response teams to coordinate efforts
  • Follow best practices to prevent the spread of the incident and minimize downtime

Isolating Affected Systems to Prevent Spread

When an OT cyber incident is detected, it’s crucial to act quickly to prevent the threat from spreading further. One of the most effective containment strategies is to isolate the affected systems from the rest of the network. This can be achieved through network segmentation and micro-segmentation, which limit the blast radius of an incident by restricting traffic between different OT zones.

Implementing Network Segmentation

Network segmentation involves dividing the OT network into smaller, isolated segments using firewalls, virtual LANs (VLANs), and access control lists (ACLs). By creating separate zones for different operational functions, such as process control, safety systems, and data acquisition, you can minimize the potential impact of a cyber incident. If a threat is detected in one segment, it can be quickly isolated, preventing it from spreading to other critical systems.

Disconnecting Compromised Devices

In some cases, it may be necessary to physically disconnect or isolate compromised devices from the network. This can help prevent the spread of malware or unauthorized access to other systems. However, it’s essential to carefully consider the potential impact on operations before taking this step, as it may disrupt critical processes. Work closely with OT personnel to identify safe opportunities for device isolation without causing undue downtime.

Preserving Evidence for Forensic Analysis

While containing the incident is the top priority, it’s also important to preserve evidence for forensic analysis. This evidence can help identify the root cause of the incident, understand the attacker’s tactics, and improve future defence strategies. To ensure the integrity of the collected evidence, follow these best practices:

  1. Capture network traffic, system logs, and memory dumps from affected systems as soon as possible. This data can provide valuable insights into the attacker’s activities and the extent of the compromise.
  2. Follow proper chain of custody procedures when handling evidence. Document who accessed the evidence, when, and for what purpose. This helps maintain the credibility of the evidence in case legal action is required.
  3. Engage with specialized OT forensic experts who have experience investigating cyber incidents in industrial environments. They can conduct thorough analyses and provide recommendations for remediation and prevention.

Collaborating with IT and OT Cyber Incident Response Teams

Effective containment of an OT cyber incident requires close collaboration between OT and IT teams. Establish clear communication channels and protocols to ensure a coordinated response. IT incident response teams can provide valuable expertise and resources, but it’s essential to consider the unique requirements and constraints of OT environments.

Establishing Communication Channels

Set up dedicated communication channels, such as conference bridges or chat rooms, to facilitate real-time collaboration between OT and IT teams during an incident. Ensure that key personnel from both sides are involved, including OT engineers, IT security specialists, and incident response team members. Regular status updates and decision points should be communicated through these channels to keep everyone informed and aligned.

Leveraging IT Expertise

IT incident response teams have extensive experience dealing with cyber incidents in corporate networks. While OT environments have distinct characteristics, many of the fundamental principles of incident response still apply. Leverage the knowledge and tools of IT teams to support containment efforts, such as network monitoring, malware analysis, and threat intelligence. However, be mindful of the potential impacts on OT systems and seek guidance from OT personnel before implementing any containment measures.

Updating Stakeholders

Throughout the containment process, keep relevant stakeholders informed about the progress and any potential impacts on operations. This may include plant managers, executives, and external parties such as customers or regulators. Provide regular updates through established communication channels, and be prepared to answer questions and address concerns. Transparency and timely communication can help maintain trust and minimize the overall impact of the incident.

By isolating affected systems, preserving evidence, and collaborating effectively with IT and incident response teams, you can contain an OT cyber incident and prevent it from causing widespread damage. In the next section, we’ll explore the steps involved in eradicating the threat and restoring secure operations.

OT Incident Eradication: Eliminating the Threat and Restoring Secure Operations

  • Remove malicious artifacts and patch vulnerabilities to prevent future exploits
  • Strengthen OT security by reviewing policies, procedures, and controls
  • Document lessons learned and update incident response plans for continuous improvement

Identifying and Removing Malicious Artifacts

After successfully containing the OT incident, the next crucial step is to identify and remove any malicious artifacts left behind by the attackers. This process involves conducting a thorough analysis of all affected systems to detect and eliminate malware, backdoors, and other malicious elements that could potentially allow the attackers to regain access or cause further damage.

Start by using specialized tools and techniques to scan the compromised systems for known malware signatures and anomalies. Once identified, safely remove these artifacts from the systems, ensuring that no traces are left behind. It’s essential to document the removal process and maintain a record of the eliminated artifacts for future reference and analysis.

Updating and Patching Vulnerable Systems

After removing the malicious artifacts, focus on updating or patching the vulnerable systems that allowed the attackers to gain initial access. This step is critical in preventing future exploits and strengthening the overall security posture of the OT environment.

Identify the specific vulnerabilities exploited by the attackers and prioritize the systems that require immediate attention. Work closely with vendors and internal IT teams to obtain and apply the necessary patches and updates. Ensure that all systems are brought up to date with the latest security fixes and that no known vulnerabilities remain unaddressed.

Implementing Stricter Access Controls and Authentication Mechanisms

To further fortify the OT environment and prevent unauthorized access, implement stricter access controls and authentication mechanisms. This may involve:

  1. Reviewing and updating user roles and permissions to ensure that individuals only have access to the resources they require to perform their job functions.
  2. Implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) for all user accounts, adding an extra layer of security beyond passwords.
  3. Enforcing strong password policies, including regular password rotations and complexity requirements.
  4. Monitoring and logging all access attempts, both successful and failed, to detect and respond to suspicious activities promptly.

Strengthening OT Security Post-Incident

With the immediate threat eradicated, it’s time to focus on strengthening the overall OT security posture to prevent future incidents. This process involves conducting a comprehensive review of the existing OT security policies, procedures, and controls to identify and address any gaps or weaknesses.

Start by assessing the effectiveness of the current security measures in place. Evaluate how well they performed during the incident and identify areas where improvements can be made. This may involve updating outdated policies, refining procedures, or implementing new controls to address specific risks and vulnerabilities.

Identifying and Addressing Security Gaps

Conduct a thorough gap analysis to pinpoint weaknesses in the OT security architecture. This may involve:

  1. Reviewing network segmentation and firewall configurations to ensure proper isolation between OT and IT networks.
  2. Assessing the security of remote access solutions and ensuring that they adhere to industry best practices and standards.
  3. Evaluating the patch management process and ensuring that all systems are kept up to date with the latest security fixes.
  4. Examining the incident detection and response capabilities and identifying areas for improvement, such as enhancing monitoring and alerting mechanisms.

Implementing Additional Security Measures

Based on the findings of the gap analysis, implement additional security measures to bolster the OT environment’s resilience against future threats. This may include:

  1. Deploying advanced network monitoring and intrusion detection solutions to identify and respond to suspicious activities in real-time.
  2. Implementing vulnerability management processes to regularly assess and remediate vulnerabilities across the OT landscape.
  3. Enhancing security awareness training programs for OT personnel to ensure they are well-equipped to identify and report potential security incidents.
  4. Conducting regular security audits and penetration testing to validate the effectiveness of the implemented security controls and identify areas for improvement.

Documenting Lessons Learned and Updating Incident Response Plans

The final step in the eradication phase is to document the lessons learned from the incident and update the OT incident response plans accordingly. This process is essential for continuous improvement and ensuring that your business is better prepared to handle future incidents.

Conduct a thorough post-incident review, involving all stakeholders who participated in the incident response process. Encourage open and honest discussions about what worked well, what challenges were faced, and what improvements can be made. Capture these insights in a formal post-incident report, which will serve as a valuable reference for future incident response efforts.

Updating OT Incident Response Plans

Based on the lessons learned and industry best practices, update the OT incident response plans to reflect the new knowledge and insights gained from the incident. This may involve:

  1. Refining the incident classification and prioritization criteria to ensure that resources are allocated effectively during future incidents.
  2. Updating the roles and responsibilities of the incident response team members to optimize coordination and communication.
  3. Incorporating new tools and technologies that proved effective during the incident into the standard operating procedures.
  4. Establishing clear metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the effectiveness of the incident response process and track improvements over time.

Providing Training and Awareness Programs

To ensure that all OT personnel are well-prepared to execute the updated incident response procedures, provide comprehensive training and awareness programs. This may include:

  1. Conducting hands-on workshops and simulations to familiarize personnel with the updated incident response plans and their specific roles and responsibilities.
  2. Developing e-learning modules and reference materials that personnel can access on-demand to refresh their knowledge and skills.
  3. Regularly communicating updates and reminders about the incident response procedures through various channels, such as email, posters, and team meetings.
  4. Encouraging personnel to report any potential security incidents or concerns promptly and providing clear guidance on how to do so.

By documenting lessons learned, updating incident response plans, and providing ongoing training and awareness programs, your business can continuously improve your OT incident response capabilities and minimize the impact of future incidents.

With the threat eradicated and secure operations restored, the focus now shifts to the path to full recovery and resuming safe and reliable OT operations.

The Path to OT Incident Recovery: Resuming Safe and Reliable Operations


  • Prioritize restoration of critical OT systems and processes
  • Implement enhanced monitoring and detection mechanisms
  • Communicate clearly with stakeholders and resume normal operations

Restoring OT Systems and Processes

Once the OT incident has been eradicated and the threat eliminated, the focus shifts to restoring the affected systems and processes. This phase is critical to resuming safe and reliable operations. The first step is to prioritize the restoration of critical OT systems and processes based on their business impact and operational requirements. This ensures that the most essential functions are brought back online first, minimizing downtime and disruption.

Before bringing the restored systems back online, it’s crucial to verify their integrity and security. This involves conducting thorough testing and validation to ensure that the systems are stable, reliable, and free from any remnants of the incident. Rigorous testing helps prevent any potential reinfection or new incidents from occurring.

OT Cyber Incident Response Phases

The incident response process typically consists of several phases, each playing a vital role in effectively managing and recovering from a cyber security incident. While the exact number and names of these phases may vary slightly depending on the framework or methodology used, the following are the most common incident response phases:

  1. Preparation: Establishing incident response plans, procedures, and resources before an incident occurs.
  2. Identification: Detecting and confirming that an incident has occurred and determining its scope and impact.
  3. Containment: Isolating the affected systems and networks to prevent further damage and limit the incident’s spread.
  4. Eradication: Eliminating the threat and removing any malicious components from the affected systems.
  5. Recovery: Restoring systems and processes to their normal state and resuming operations.
  6. Lessons Learned: Conducting a post-incident review to identify areas for improvement and update incident response plans accordingly.

Monitoring for Potential Reinfection or New Incidents

After restoring the OT systems and processes, it’s essential to remain vigilant and monitor for any signs of reinfection or new incidents. Implementing enhanced monitoring and detection mechanisms helps identify potential threats early, enabling a swift response and minimizing the impact on operations.

Regular vulnerability scans and penetration tests should be conducted to proactively identify and address any security weaknesses in the OT environment. These proactive measures help strengthen the overall security posture and reduce the likelihood of future incidents.

Establishing a process for continuous improvement of OT security is crucial in staying ahead of the evolving threat landscape. This involves regularly reviewing and updating security controls, incident response plans, and training programs based on the latest industry best practices and emerging threats.

OT Cyber Incident Response: Communicating with Stakeholders and Resuming Normal Operations

Effective communication with stakeholders is a critical component of the incident recovery process. Providing clear and transparent updates to management, employees, and customers helps maintain trust and confidence in your business’s ability to handle the situation.

Coordination with various business units is essential to ensure a smooth transition back to normal operations. This involves aligning priorities, resources, and timelines to minimize disruption and optimize the recovery process.

Post-Incident Review

Once normal operations have resumed, conducting a thorough review of the incident response and recovery process is crucial. This review helps identify areas for improvement and optimize future response efforts. Key aspects to consider during the post-incident review include:

  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the incident response plan and procedures
  • Assessing the performance of the incident response team and identifying any skill gaps or resource constraints
  • Analyzing the root cause of the incident and determining preventive measures to avoid similar incidents in the future
  • Updating incident response documentation and training materials based on the lessons learned

By continuously refining the incident response process and incorporating lessons learned, organizations can enhance their resilience and better prepare for future OT cyber security incidents.

The Importance of a Comprehensive OT Cyber Incident Response Plan

  • A well-designed OT incident response plan minimizes the impact of cyber incidents on operations, safety, and reputation.
  • Regular testing and updates ensure the plan remains effective in the face of evolving threats and changing environments.
  • Continuous improvement and collaboration foster a strong cyber security culture and enhance overall resilience.

Aligning Your OT Cyber Incident Response with Business Objectives

An effective OT incident response plan must be closely aligned with the organization’s overall business objectives and risk tolerance. This alignment ensures that the plan prioritizes the protection of critical assets, processes, and data essential to maintaining operations and ensuring safety.

To achieve this alignment, OT cyber security teams should work closely with business stakeholders to identify and prioritize critical assets based on their importance to the organization’s mission and the potential impact of a cyber incident on these assets. This collaboration helps to ensure that incident response efforts are focused on the most critical areas and that resources are allocated appropriately.

Conducting Business Impact Analyses

Business impact analyses (BIAs) are essential tools for aligning OT incident response with business objectives. A BIA helps identify critical business processes, systems, and data, as well as the potential consequences of disruptions to these assets. By conducting regular BIAs, organizations can prioritize incident response efforts and ensure that the most critical assets receive the highest level of protection.

Regularly Testing and Updating OT Cyber Incident Response Plan

To ensure that an OT incident response plan remains effective, organizations must conduct regular tabletop exercises and simulations to test its effectiveness. These exercises help to identify gaps in the plan, evaluate the readiness of incident response teams, and improve coordination and communication among stakeholders.

Lessons learned from these exercises, as well as from actual incidents and changes in the OT environment or threat landscape, should be used to update and refine the incident response plan. This iterative approach ensures that the plan remains relevant and effective over time.

Leveraging Industry Best Practices and Frameworks

When updating an OT incident response plan, organizations should leverage industry best practices and frameworks, such as the NIST cyber security Framework and the IEC 62443 series of standards. These frameworks provide guidance on developing and maintaining effective incident response capabilities and can help organizations align their practices with industry norms.

OT Cyber Incident Response: Continuous Improvement and Adaptation

To maintain a strong cyber security posture, organizations must embrace a continuous improvement mindset, regularly reviewing and adapting their OT cyber security practices based on new technologies, threats, and industry best practices. This approach helps to ensure that incident response capabilities keep pace with the evolving threat landscape and remain effective in protecting critical assets.

Fostering a culture of cyber security awareness and collaboration among OT, IT, and business stakeholders is also essential to strengthening an organization’s overall cyber resilience. By promoting open communication, sharing knowledge and expertise, and encouraging cross-functional collaboration, organizations can build a more cohesive and effective approach to incident response.

Investing in Cyber Security Training and Education

Investing in cyber security training and education for employees at all levels of the organization is a critical component of continuous improvement and adaptation. Regular training helps to ensure that personnel are aware of current threats, understand their roles and responsibilities in incident response, and are prepared to act quickly and effectively when an incident occurs.

Your OT Cyber Incident Response: Next Steps

Securing operational technology (OT) systems is a complex challenge that requires a well-designed incident response plan. By understanding the unique characteristics of OT environments and implementing robust detection, containment, eradication, and recovery strategies, you can minimize the impact of cyber incidents and ensure the safety and reliability of your industrial operations.

Developing an OT-specific incident response plan is crucial. This plan should align with your organization’s business objectives, be regularly tested and updated, and involve close collaboration between OT, IT, and management personnel.

To strengthen your OT cyber security posture, consider adopting industry standards such as NIST SP 800-82, ISA/IEC 62443, and NERC CIP, which provide comprehensive guidance on securing industrial control systems and critical infrastructure.

How prepared is your organization to handle an OT cyber incident?

Take the time to review your current incident response capabilities and identify areas for improvement. By investing in a robust OT incident response plan and fostering a culture of cyber security awareness, you can protect your critical assets and maintain the integrity of your industrial operations.

If you need further help, connect with Canada’s leading MSSP and OT Security Team, F12, today.