What Is Operational Technology (OT) Cybersecurity?
Until recently, manufacturing hardware and processes existed largely un-networked. As the global economy demands production and logistical schedules optimized down to the minute, many industries are securely connecting operational technology (OT) to improve production processes and maximize efficiencies.
This is Industry 4.0, and like the IT revolution for white-collar work, it requires a secure network to safeguard global supply chains and utilities from outside threats. Read on to learn about OT cyber security, the most significant threats facing OT systems today, and the potential pitfalls industries will need to overcome.
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What Is OT Cyber Security?
OT cybersecurity is the method by which industrial manufacturing, energy, transportation, and utility companies protect their networked hardware and software from malicious actors.
As industries aim to maximize efficiency, optimize production, and reduce costs, they continue to lean on internet of things (IoT) devices and sensors to monitor industrial hardware and analyze performance. Additionally, industrial control systems (ICS) like supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and programmable logic controllers (PLC) provide communication between devices and operators, ensuring complex hardware systems are operating smoothly while alerting workers to any potential issues. OT cybersecurity ensures those devices are kept safe from attacks, preventing downtime that can lead to lost profits and disruption of vital services.
According to Gartner, OT cybersecurity is achieved through processes and technologies that:
- Protect people, assets, and information;
- Monitor and control physical devices, processes, and events; and
- Initiate state changes to enterprise OT systems.
For system administrators asking, “what is OT cybersecurity,” the answer looks a lot like implementing protections for IT systems. However, there are significant differences that can lead to the success or failure of projects. OT supervisors achieve these goals by implementing state-of-the-art network security, application security, asset management, and effective security policies, as well as continuous monitoring of device activity and access to networks and cloud services.
A complete OT security definition includes the breadth of legacy and off-grid devices that comprise the majority of the global manufacturing infrastructure. Even OT devices that aren’t connected to the internet — yet are part of an internal OT network — are susceptible to threats of cyber security incidents, as compromised computers and other devices could be connected directly to these devices. Stuxnet was the first well-known, malicious computer worm specifically targeting SCADA. Such attacks can bring entire industrial systems like factory assembly lines or power plants to a crashing halt. Thus, proper cyber security techniques should be implemented and monitored throughout the network.
What Are the Biggest Threats Facing OT Systems?
It is critical to understand potential threats against OT systems. Successful attacks can cause lost revenue, service disruption, and even loss of life due to equipment malfunction or sabotage. In extreme circumstances, entire populations could lose access to water, power, and other vital resources.
Unprotected OT devices can serve as the initial penetration into a network, which can then act as a launching point to all the other devices in the network in both OT and IT. These devices can also be targeted directly, either for the information they contain or for direct sabotage.
As OT systems increasingly rely on IoT devices — like RFID, security sensors, GPS systems, and more — to track hardware efficiency and relay data, these systems open themselves up to an increased risk of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. When devices are poorly configured or contain known vulnerabilities, they become potential vectors for attack. Malicious actors can then use these devices to gain access throughout the ICS, using these devices as synchronized botnets to overwhelm entire OT systems and force operations to a halt.
Malware — such as the previously mentioned Stuxnet worm and ransomware — can significantly impact OT systems. Nearly half of the approximately 2,600 ransomware-based data leaks that occurred in 2021 affected critical industrial and infrastructure systems. In addition to incorporating effective anti-malware systems, OT supervisors must institute robust policies to prevent infection via removable media, such as USB storage devices or external computers and hard drives.
Is your OT system secure against cyberattacks? Take our free Network Security Maturity Assessment to evaluate your organization’s security posture, discover strengths and weaknesses, and identify risks. We’ll provide you with security best practices based on your score and additional in-depth analysis at no charge.
What Vulnerabilities Do Manufacturers Need to Address?
Modern OT systems often retrofit IoT devices onto older hardware and legacy software platforms for various reasons. Sometimes replacing hardware is too costly, or it may be difficult (or impossible) to find newer hardware that accomplishes the same task. Legacy hardware and software are more susceptible to security risks, as they often contain outdated security protocols that make them easier to attack. Systems administrators must take special care — legacy hardware and software should be accounted for when analyzing security risks.
Insecure Remote Access
Improperly configured IAM profiles, firewalls, and unsecured networks can provide malicious actors convenient access to important SCADA and other systems. Once a user gains access to a single device on an OT network, the probability is high of gaining access to the entire OT and IT networks.
Compromised Cloud Security
Like other industries, manufacturing and utilities are undergoing a digital transformation, embracing the cloud to house and process data to improve operations. These services enhance productivity, but they also introduce new attack vectors.
Human error counteracts even the most robust security systems. It’s vital for OT leadership to audit system access policies and to educate engineers, front-line workers, and all employees who maintain access to OT systems on best practices.
Is Your OT System Secure?
Keeping an operational technology network secure requires a keen understanding of all the devices and systems within that network while ensuring users interact responsibly with the hardware they need to complete their jobs. Find out whether your network meets the mark by taking our Network Security Maturity Assessment. This free tool evaluates your network based on access management, lateral movement, risk and threat management, and general security. Once completed, you will receive graded results, along with an opportunity to follow up with a free in-depth analysis. The first step toward enhanced cybersecurity is the most important — take it today.