OT Security Definition + Solutions to The Biggest Challenge

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OT Security

Balancing Operational Continuity with Cyber Security is Becoming Harder Than Ever  

Brief: In this article, we define OT security, look at the challenges facing OT security teams, examples of real OT security issues, and explore common solutions and tips to address these challenges. 

“You are unwise to lower your defenses.”
— Darth Vader, Star Wars

OT, or Operational Technology, encompasses the hardware and software systems that monitor and control physical processes, devices, and infrastructure. Its security is crucial for ensuring the uninterrupted operation of essential services such as water supply, electricity, manufacturing processes, and more. 

Despite its importance, OT security has not always received the same level of attention as IT (Information Technology) security for several reasons:

Awareness and Visibility

OT systems often operate behind the scenes, and their functioning is not as visible or understood by those outside of specific operational roles. This lower visibility can lead to OT security being less of a priority for organizational leadership compared to IT security, which directly impacts information that is more universally recognized as valuable or sensitive.

Specialized Knowledge

Securing OT systems requires a specific understanding of industrial control systems (ICS), their unique vulnerabilities, and the potential impact of disruptions. This specialized knowledge is not as widespread as general IT security expertise, making it harder to appreciate the nuances of OT security.

Historical Focus on Physical Security

Many OT environments have historically been secured through physical means, with less emphasis on cyber threats. As a result, the transition to recognizing and addressing cyber vulnerabilities within these systems has been gradual.

Convergence of IT and OT

The increasing integration of IT and OT systems has brought additional complexity, exposing OT systems to a broader range of cyber threats. However, the convergence also means that OT security considerations are sometimes subsumed under broader IT security initiatives without due recognition of their unique requirements and risks.

Resource Allocation

In many organizations, cyber security budgets and resources are heavily skewed towards IT security, with OT security often receiving a smaller share of the pie. This can be due to a combination of the above factors, as well as a general underestimation of the potential impact of OT security breaches.

The underappreciation of OT security poses significant risks, as breaches in these systems can lead to severe operational disruptions, safety hazards, and even environmental damage.

Recognizing the critical importance of OT security involves not only allocating appropriate resources but also fostering a culture of security awareness that spans the entire organization, integrating OT considerations into the overall cyber security strategy, and ensuring continuous collaboration between IT and OT teams. 

As the industry evolves, so too must the approaches to securing the essential operational technologies that underpin your business.

The Top OT Security Challenge: Balancing Operational Continuity with Cybersecurity

One of the most significant challenges facing OT teams that hampers their effectiveness is the difficulty in balancing the need for operational continuity with cybersecurity. This challenge is not rooted in a deficiency within the OT teams themselves but rather in the intrinsic nature of OT systems and the environments in which they operate.

Balancing Continuity with Security

OT systems are designed to support continuous, uninterrupted operations, often in critical infrastructure sectors such as energy, water treatment, and manufacturing. Any disruption to these systems can lead to significant operational downtimes and financial losses and, in some cases, can pose risks to public safety. 

The importance of maintaining operational continuity often means that implementing necessary cyber security measures, such as patching vulnerabilities or updating software, can be difficult. These activities can require taking systems offline, which is at odds with the mandate for continuous operation.

Evolving Cyber Threats

The challenge is compounded by the rapidly evolving cyber threat landscape. As OT systems become more interconnected with IT environments and the internet, they become more exposed to cyber threats that were traditionally a concern for IT systems. This convergence of IT and OT introduces new vulnerabilities and increases the attack surface, requiring OT teams to be vigilant in monitoring and defending against cyber threats without disrupting operational processes.

Lack of Resources and Specialized Skills

Another significant challenge is the lack of resources and specialized skills needed to secure OT environments effectively. OT cyber security requires a unique blend of knowledge about both industrial control systems and cyber security practices. 

However, there is often a shortage of professionals who possess this combined expertise, making it difficult for OT teams to implement and manage effective security measures.

Integration with IT Security Practices

Integrating OT security with broader IT security practices can also present challenges. The distinct priorities and requirements of OT environments mean that IT security solutions and practices cannot always be directly applied to OT. Tailoring these practices to fit the OT context while ensuring comprehensive protection across the organization requires careful planning and coordination.

The separation of Operational Technology (OT) teams from the broader IT governance framework is a reality—and a challenge—in many organizations. 

This separation can lead to several problems, mainly because the unique risks and requirements of OT environments may not be adequately addressed within your general IT governance and risk management practices.

Why Is This Such a Problem for OT Security?

IT governance frameworks are traditionally designed with information security priorities in mind, focusing on the confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) of data. 

However, OT security emphasizes the safety, reliability, and availability of physical operations. When OT is not part of the overarching IT governance structure, there’s a risk that these priorities won’t align, potentially compromising both security and operational efficiency.

Additionally, the exclusion of OT teams from IT governance discussions can result in a lack of communication and understanding between IT and OT departments. This disconnect can lead to the implementation of policies or technologies that may not be suitable for OT environments, potentially introducing new risks or operational challenges.

Also, without incorporating the specific risks associated with OT into the broader risk management framework, organizations may overlook vulnerabilities unique to OT systems. This oversight can lead to underestimating the potential impact of threats to critical infrastructure, such as industrial control systems and SCADA systems.

Finally, OT environments might lag in adopting relevant security frameworks and best practices if they are considered outliers. This delay can make OT systems more susceptible to emerging threats and vulnerabilities, as they might not benefit from the latest security advancements and mitigation strategies.

With all of this in mind, we have ideas and strategies that can help you bolster your OT security.

Let’s take a look at what OT security actually means.

OT Security Defined 

At its core, OT involves the hardware and software dedicated to monitoring and controlling physical devices and processes. At a public utility, for instance, OT would manage everything from power generation to distribution. It’s similar in healthcare, where OT might control HVAC systems, ensuring clean air in operating rooms or managing water treatment in facilities.

Historically, OT systems were designed to be robust, operate in isolation, and prioritize safety and reliability over security. This approach made sense when these systems were standalone and not connected to IT networks or the internet. 

However, the landscape has drastically changed with the drive towards efficiency and data analytics. This push for connectivity exposes OT systems to the digital world, making them vulnerable to cyber threats that were previously a concern only for IT systems.

One of the fundamental differences between IT and OT security lies in their primary objectives. IT security focuses on confidentiality, integrity, and availability (often referred to as the CIA triad). 

In contrast, OT security emphasizes safety, availability, and integrity. The slight shift in priorities underlines a significant difference in approach: for OT, any compromise could directly impact physical safety and operations, not just data privacy or system functionality.

Given the sectors we have here in Canada, OT security becomes especially relevant. 

In the financial sector, while it might seem predominantly IT-focused, OT plays a role in managing physical security systems, ATMs, and networked devices within branches. 

In healthcare, OT is critical for patient care equipment, monitoring systems, and even building controls. A breach in OT security here could lead to more than data loss—it could mean life-or-death situations or significant disruptions in essential services.

Examples of OT Security Threats to Canadian Businesses

Let’s dig into some common OT security threats, reviewing a few real-life examples to underscore the impact these threats can have.

Malware and Ransomware

Malware and ransomware have demonstrated profound impacts on OT systems. Notable incidents like the attack on the Colonial Pipeline highlight how even a primarily IT-focused ransomware incident can lead to significant operational disruptions when it impacts the billing systems, indirectly affecting OT operations. This incident underscores the interconnectedness of IT and OT systems and the potential for IT security incidents to have cascading effects on operational technology environments.

Spear Phishing

Spear phishing attacks, leveraging social engineering to target specific individuals or organizations, have led to substantial financial and data losses. One striking example is Ubiquiti Networks Inc., which lost $46.7 million due to a spear phishing email that tricked employees into making unauthorized financial transfers. This incident demonstrates the ease with which attackers can manipulate employees into compromising security protocols, posing a significant risk to both IT and OT environments.

Insider Threats

The threat from within, posed by insider threats, can be as damaging as external attacks, if not more so. Insider threats involve malicious or negligent actions by employees or contractors that lead to data breaches or system sabotage. A notable (confidential) example includes an energy company that, through proactive threat hunting, identified signs of malware infection within its OT network. This example illustrates the importance of continuous monitoring and the potential for insider actions (intentional or accidental) to introduce malware into critical systems.

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

APTs represent targeted attacks by well-resourced and persistent adversaries, often nation-states, aimed at stealing information or disrupting operations over a prolonged period. The effectiveness of threat hunting in identifying indicators of an APT within an OT network highlights the sophisticated nature of these threats. Continuous monitoring and threat-hunting efforts enabled a critical infrastructure provider to detect the presence of an APT, gather intelligence, and mitigate the threat effectively.

The common thread across these examples is the need for a holistic approach to OT security that includes proactive threat detection, comprehensive training to recognize and respond to social engineering attacks, and rigorous access controls to mitigate insider threats. 

Moreover, these incidents underscore the importance of bridging the gap between IT and OT security practices to ensure a unified defence against both conventional cyber threats and those uniquely targeting operational technologies.

Given the nature of the threats in OT security, many businesses have some basic protections like network segmentation in place, yet that simply isn’t enough. 

Let’s take a closer look at this. 

My Network is Already Segmented and I Have a Strong OT Security Strategy

We hear this a lot. A segmented network is fundamental to an OT security posture. 

In a well-secured ICS (Industrial Control System) environment, layers of network segmentation act as critical defences, ensuring that breaches within the IT network don’t necessarily grant access to the core operational systems. 

This segmentation is designed to compartmentalize different parts of the network, effectively isolating the ICS from your broader IT environment. This means that even if an attacker compromises your credentials or gains access via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) within the IT domain, crossing over into the ICS space is not straightforward.

However, this segmentation, while formidable, isn’t infallible. 

Attackers continuously evolve their strategies, developing methods to leap across these divides. Techniques such as privilege escalation, exploiting vulnerabilities in the bridging systems that connect IT and OT, or leveraging social engineering to bypass physical or logical separations can still pose significant risks. 

Additionally, the increasing convergence of IT and OT for business efficiency and data analytics purposes is creating more pathways that, if not meticulously managed, could serve as conduits for attackers from your IT environment into the more sensitive ICS domain.

The reality is that while network segmentation is a critical security measure, it’s part of a broader security posture that must include continuous monitoring, threat detection, and response strategies tailored to the unique characteristics of ICS environments. 

Furthermore, as OT becomes more interconnected with IT systems through the Internet of Things (IoT) devices and cloud services, the potential attack surface expands. This integration can inadvertently introduce vulnerabilities to the OT network, underscoring the need for a holistic, layered security approach that considers the evolving nature of cyber threats and the specific vulnerabilities of ICS environments.

Let’s look at how you can build a robust OT security posture and protect your business. 

Building a Robust OT Security Posture

Building a robust OT security posture involves several core components, each playing a vital role in protecting the infrastructure from cyber threats while ensuring operational resilience and safety. 

Here’s a breakdown of these components:

1. Asset Inventory and Management

The foundation of strong OT security starts with a comprehensive inventory of all assets within the OT environment. This includes hardware devices, software applications, network connections, and data flows. Knowing exactly what assets you have, where they are located, and how they interact is crucial for identifying vulnerabilities and potential attack vectors.

2. Network Segmentation and Control

Effective network segmentation divides the OT network into smaller, controlled zones, preventing the spread of cyber threats from one zone to another. Implementing demilitarized zones (DMZs) between IT and OT networks minimizes the risk of attacks traversing between the two environments.

3. Access Control and Management

Ensuring that only authorized personnel have access to OT systems is essential. This involves strict management of physical access to OT devices and secure authentication methods for remote access, including the use of multi-factor authentication (MFA) and role-based access controls (RBAC).

4. Threat Detection and Monitoring

Continuous monitoring of the OT environment for unusual or unauthorized activities helps in early detection of potential security incidents. Deploying intrusion detection systems (IDS) and implementing security information and event management (SIEM) solutions tailored to OT can provide real-time alerts and insights into security events.

5. Vulnerability Management

Regularly scanning for vulnerabilities within the OT environment and applying necessary patches or mitigations is vital. Given the sensitivity of OT systems, patch management may involve more careful planning and testing to avoid disrupting operational processes.

6. Incident Response and Recovery

Having a specialized incident response plan for OT security incidents is critical. This plan should include procedures for quickly identifying, isolating, and mitigating attacks, as well as steps for recovery and return to normal operations. The plan should be regularly tested and updated.

7. Security Awareness and Training

Human error can significantly compromise OT security. Regular training and awareness programs for all employees, including those specifically tailored for OT personnel, can greatly reduce the risk of accidental or intentional insider threats.

8. Physical Security

Physical security measures protect OT assets from unauthorized physical access or tampering. This includes secure locking mechanisms, surveillance systems, and access logs for sensitive areas.

9. Supply Chain Security

Ensuring the security of third-party vendors and suppliers is an integral part of OT security. This involves conducting security assessments of vendors and requiring adherence to security standards as part of contractual agreements.

10. Regulatory Compliance

Compliance with industry standards and government regulations ensures that minimum security requirements are met. This includes standards like IEC 62443 for industrial network and system security, as well as region-specific regulations.

Implementing these components into an OT security strategy requires a holistic approach, considering the unique operational requirements and risk landscape of each OT environment. It’s about creating a layered defence strategy that not only protects against current threats but is also adaptable to evolving security challenges.

Quick Tips to Develop an OT Security Posture

Not all companies have a good handle on their OT security. If you’re in the early stages, here are a couple of key points to consider when establishing your OT security:

OT Security Visibility and Monitoring

One of the first steps in securing OT is gaining complete visibility into these systems. You need to know what devices are connected, how they communicate, and what normal operations look like to identify potential threats or anomalies.

OT Security Network Segmentation

Keeping OT networks separate from IT networks as much as possible reduces the risk of cross-contamination from cyber threats. This might involve physical separation or using firewalls and strict access controls.

OT Security Access Control and Management

Strictly managing who has access to OT systems is vital. This includes not just digital access but physical access to devices and control rooms.

OT Security Incident Response

Developing a specific incident response plan for OT environments is crucial. The plan should consider the physical safety implications of any security incident.

As you can see, securing OT requires a tailored approach that considers the unique implications of a breach on physical operations and safety. It’s about extending the cyber security mindset into the realm of physical processes and devices. 

As we increase connectivity for efficiency and data-driven decision-making, bridging the gap between IT and OT security becomes not just beneficial but essential for protecting against the increasingly sophisticated cyber threat landscape.

One way you can upgrade your OT security capabilities right away is to work with an expert OT security team, like the one here at F12.net. 

Level Up Your OT Security with F12.net 

One of the most impactful ways a Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) like our team here at F12.net can strengthen your OT security is through the creation and maintenance of a unified inventory of all network-connected OT devices, providing continuous visibility and monitoring. 

This approach addresses a critical gap many organizations face: the challenge of securing operational technology (OT) that is often unmanaged by IT departments. We bring the expertise and tools necessary for comprehensive security oversight, especially for OT environments that may not be adequately covered by traditional IT security measures.

By partnering with F12.net you gain access to a team of experts who can develop and implement cyber security policies, perform regular security assessments, and keep your business up-to-date with the latest security developments and best practices. This partnership can provide your business with robust security measures, cost savings, and access to specialized expertise that may be challenging to develop in-house.

To get a free OT security assessment, contact us today.