The Human Safety Factor in OT Security

29 Jan 2024

The Importance of OT Security for Human Safety

Industrial digitization is necessary, but it opens operational environments to increased risk, including worker and consumer safety. How can OT environments stay safe? 

Operational technology security refers to the measures implemented by organizations to protect the networks, control systems, and devices that manage critical infrastructure and industrial processes. Organizations that handle physical processes, such as energy distribution, manufacturing, water treatment, transportation, gas pipelines, and more, rely on OT security to safeguard their data, software, and hardware from cyber threats, operational errors, and physical attacks.

Cyber security threats impact both OT and IT (information technology) systems, but threats to OT systems are often the more harmful of the two. The consequences of OT attacks have the potential to harm public health and safety, damage the environment, and disrupt critical services. Adding to the challenge is the fact that OT systems were generally not created with security in mind. They were designed to be efficient, and reliable, and to carry out their functions without interruption. Many OT systems lack intrusion detection capabilities and other security measures such as firewalls, making them particularly vulnerable to attack. 

OT security seeks to prevent destruction, manipulation, or unauthorized access to the industrial control systems (ICS) components that control industrial processes. To do so, OT security relies on network security protocols, physical security measures, access controls, and monitoring tools to detect vulnerabilities and prevent potential attacks, while adhering to safety requirements and complying with regulatory standards. 


Connecting to the Cloud 

OT and IT systems are increasingly converging with one another and connecting to the cloud, which allows them to offer new services and improve operations. There are many benefits to connecting OT systems to the cloud: reducing maintenance costs, minimizing unplanned downtime, improving the availability, accessibility, and scalability of OT data and systems, improving operational efficiency, and allowing for more informed decision-making. Cloud providers also usually invest in their own security measures and may offer software updates that could mitigate security risks. 

OT companies rely on cloud computing to let them collect and analyze data for predictive maintenance. Cloud computing also lets OT companies optimize supply chain management by monitoring shipping schedules and tracking inventory levels. It enables remote monitoring of machinery or equipment without the need for on-site maintenance. Additionally, some OT companies use cloud computing to optimize energy and resource utilization, as well as to connect systems and equipment for better data analysis and automation. 

However, there are some negative security ramifications to connecting OT to the cloud:

Operational risks: Disruptions and outages can impact the performance and availability of OT systems, causing operational downtime or possible safety incidents that could impact workers and consumers. Safety-critical industries such as energy, manufacturing, and transportation are especially vulnerable. 

Cyber security threats: OT connectivity to the cloud broadens the attack surface, introducing risks such as data breaches, ransomware, and malware to critical infrastructure and putting sensitive information at risk. 

Compliance risks: Critical infrastructure organizations must often abide by strict safety and security regulatory requirements, such as the electrical industry’s NERC CIP standards. Cloud providers may not meet these standards, or they may require costly and complicated additional steps to achieve compliance. 

Data privacy breaches: Cloud providers may gather sensitive data from OT systems, causing potential breaches of data privacy regulations. This data could be used for unintended purposes or shared with third parties. 

Concerns have been raised over the security of our new interconnected world. For instance, smart cars may have access to people’s banking information to ensure timely payments. They can also disable the car or its systems, such as the air conditioning system. 

In another example, smart warehouses have multiple automation controlling manufacturing processes. If a problem is detected, the company lacks the visibility to know whether a malfunction is the result of operator error or a malicious attack. 

These and other connected systems and devices are highly complex and require dynamic security solutions. Companies must carefully evaluate the risks and benefits of connecting to the cloud. Comprehensive, proactive safety measures are required to mitigate these risks and prioritize the most critical vulnerabilities in the OT network.


The Human Factor

People play a significant role in securing OT assets, such as industrial control systems. At times, humans can detract from an organization's OT security posture by unintentionally introducing vulnerabilities into the system, falling prey to social engineering attacks, or through sheer human error. 

Employees who work with OT systems need the appropriate training to learn how to identify and respond to OT security threats properly. Employees should be made aware of the possible consequences of a breach in OT security. Education on proper cyber hygiene should be carried out company-wide. Poor cyber hygiene practices, such as failing to carry out software updates or using weak passwords, make OT systems more susceptible to attack. 

Cyber attackers can deceive employees into revealing sensitive OT-critical information. Employees with security clearance to critical systems can cause damage, either intentionally or unintentionally. Organizations should mitigate these insider threats by carrying out regular security checks, conducting security awareness training, monitoring user activity, and implementing access controls. 


Ensuring Safety

As stated, the human consequences of connecting OT systems to the cloud can include economic repercussions, environmental harm, reputational damage, and physical harm, such as injury, or even death. 

There are several best practices that critical infrastructure organizations can implement to ensure OT security:

  • Conducting a thorough risk assessment to identify possible OT security vulnerabilities. A risk assessment is one of the most crucial steps toward setting up effective security controls to manage risk and protect people’s safety.  
  • Providing awareness education and training for all organization personnel who deal with the OT system. These programs should ensure that participants fully understand security threats and know how to respond to an incident. 
  • Regularly updating and maintaining OT system software and firmware to ensure it meets safety standards and is up to date.
  • Implementing access controls, such as password policies and multi-factor authentication to prevent unauthorized access to the OT system.
  • Implementing physical security safeguards such as closed-caption cameras and security personnel to safeguard the OT system’s physical infrastructure.
  • Carrying out security audits on a regular basis to monitor and detect vulnerabilities and address them quickly.
  • Developing a thorough response plan to enable an efficient, prompt response to security incidents, thus minimizing their impact on human safety. 


OT security requires a specialized approach and unique security solutions. OTORIO helps organizations proactively manage risk with advanced visibility and accurate risk assessment, facilitating IT and OT team communication and improving both the mean time to detect and the mean time to respond. Industrial manufacturing and critical infrastructure companies worldwide rely on OTORIO’s OT security solutions. OTORIO ensures a safe, reliable environment that benefits the entire organization and solves real-world OT security challenges.