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Operational Technology (OT) security – 5-step checklist for starting your security program

OT Security

Where the widespread adoption of digital technology has propelled businesses to new heights, it has subsequently created gaps for malicious threat actors to exploit. Significant advancements have been made in strengthening the security of Information Technology (IT) frameworks over time. However, despite potential for graver consequences, Operational Technology (OT) is yet to receive the attention that it truly deserves. This issue is mainly attributed to its steeper learning curve in contrast to IT, investment challenges at the top leadership levels, and a shortage of specialized personnel capable of managing such circumstances.

Recent OT cyber incidents and their resulting consequences have compelled top leadership to initiate discussions on developing strategies to safeguard critical infrastructures. But the question remains: how to approach this?

Embarking on your cyber journey can be a daunting task as it raises burning questions such as where to begin, what variables to consider, and which strategy will work best for your organization. Amidst the overwhelming queries and the amount of disseminated information, this article aims to cut through the clutter and provide clear guidance on establishing a secure OT program.

Contextualizing OT cybersecurity and its relevance

Before diving into solutions, it is crucial to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of OT and how it differs from IT. In simple terms, the distinction lies in the separate domains they operate in, based on their specific requirements and characteristics. IT exclusively operates within the digital realm, with its primary scope encompassing data-centric tasks such as the management, storage, and processing of personal information and financial transactions. On the other hand, OT activities directly impact industrial operations by combining software and hardware to control and operate physical assets in real time. The divergent technological scopes necessitate having different sets of standards as well. With regards to OT security, industry-recognized standards such as NIST Cybersecurity Framework and ISA/IEC 62443 serve as the go-to frameworks that are widely adopted across the industry.

However, despite the divergent scopes, the convergence of IT and OT through digital transformation initiatives is inevitable in the pursuit of increased productivity and a strong drive to gain competitive edge. While digital transformation initiatives have unlocked new opportunities, enhanced operational efficiency, and ensured business continuity, they have also exposed businesses to previously unseen risks by potentially exposing OT networks to external connection.

OT Cybersecurity Checklist – 5 things to look out for

Taking into consideration the industrial challenges and the available solutions, we have created a 5-point checklist that not only outlines the criticality and need for intervention but also highlights the crucial steps that will serve as the foundation for achieving OT cyber resilience.

Understanding the growing importance of OT Cybersecurity
Unlike in IT, where attacks often result in financial losses and data breaches, cyberattacks on OT systems can have far-reaching consequences. These incidents include operational disruptions, environmental damage, product leaks, reputational damage, and potential harm to human lives. A recent detailed study conducted by Barracuda Networks stated that approximately 90% of manufacturing organizations experienced disruptions in their production or supply chain due to OT incidents, resulting in an average downtime of 1.84 days in 2021. To ensure that your organization avoids becoming one of the unfortunate victims, it is essential to understand the necessity of OT cybersecurity.

Establish your unique context for OT security
The inherent complexities of OT systems, coupled with the growing convergence with IT and their direct connection to the physical world, have significantly expanded the attack surfaces. The prevalent challenges the organizations are facing can be divided into technical and managerial aspects. From a technical perspective, there are issues related to operating legacy systems with limited security controls, inefficient third-party remote connections, a shortage of subject expertise, and operational limitations. On the managerial front, unclear ownership and coordination between OT and IT teams, budgetary constraints, and competing priorities are holding them back. The complexity of your context makes it difficult to find a cookie cutter solution that can solve your OTCS problems.

Tackle cyber threats through a collaborative approach
Strengthening the technological foundations of OT environments involves developing OT cybersecurity strategies and selecting the appropriate framework or combination of frameworks to align with your operational readiness. The presence of knowledge barriers and the need for subject expertise necessitates following a consultant-led approach to assess your existing ecosystem, identify vulnerabilities, and determine potential entry points, all while ensuring the confidentiality and integrity of your ecosystem. Given that your industrial infrastructure likely consists of assets from multiple vendors, it is crucial to have solutions that cater to all. A consultant can assist you in defining security objectives and implementing comprehensive procedures that cover various areas, including access controls, patch management, network segmentation, incident response, and employee training.

Address critical security gaps
Prioritize solutions that are easily deployable and seamlessly integratable to reinforce system hardening. By implementing multi-threat detection techniques, authorization protocols, and unidirectional data flow, one can minimize the risks of data leakages and tampering. The resilience of the system can be further enhanced by monitoring critical networks in real-time through a centralized system and regularly backing up data for swift recovery.

Future-proof your systems with an OT Cybersecurity command center
As vulnerabilities consistently emerge within aging systems and with advancing technologies, hackers continue to develop innovative methods for breaching systems, your OT efforts would require long-term consistency. Establishing a robust command and control center where regular audits are conducted and future strategies are developed based on zero trust principles can ensure that your OT security posture remains robust.

OT Governance, Implementation, and Compliance

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