The Journey Towards OT Security and Operational Resilience

16 Oct 2023

How To Protect Critical Infrastructure with Comprehensive OT Security


Operational Technology (OT) systems are central in critical infrastructure sectors, including manufacturing, transportation, energy, and healthcare. OT systems control and monitor physical processes, making them attractive targets for cyber attackers. Organizations require a comprehensive security approach that mitigates risks, ensures operational resilience, and continually considers the evolving OT landscape. This blog post will cover these aspects and recommend protecting OT systems and data.

Distinct Risks: OT vs. IT

While Information Technology (IT) focuses on data and information, OT controls physical processes in industrial environments. Therefore, risk management approaches for OT, and IT differ from one another in several key ways.

OT risks threaten to harm physical assets and disrupt business continuity. They include supply chain issues, safety hazards, equipment failures, and environmental incidents. OT safety frameworks often adhere to specific standards such as IEC 62443 Certification.

OT risk management aims to identify and mitigate risks to operational systems and the physical processes they control. OT environments consist of equipment, systems, and devices that oversee industrial control systems, SCADA systems, PLCs, and physical sensors. These systems are often interconnected with physical assets and require compatibility with legacy systems and real-time processing.

On the other hand, IT environments include databases, servers, corporate networks, endpoints, software applications, and cloud services. IT risk management deals with system failures, data breaches, unauthorized access, and other cyber threats to hardware, software, data, and networks. IT environments face threats such as data breaches, malware attacks, insider threats, unauthorized access, system vulnerabilities, and regulatory compliance violations. Attacks on IT environments include hacking, phishing, ransomware, and social engineering.

IT risk management involves identifying and mitigating threats to these IT systems and infrastructure. It leverages established standards such as the ISO/IEC 27001 and NIST Cybersecurity Framework, which provide guidance on data privacy, cybersecurity, and IT governance.


OT Risk Management Strategies

Operational security for OT environments seeks to protect and manage sensitive information and activities within an organization. Therefore, risks must be promptly identified and mitigated to ensure the integrity, availability, and confidentiality of critical operations and assets.

A strong OT risk management strategy comprises several components:

  • Identifying the assets that must be safeguarded in the OT environment, such as physical infrastructure, data repositories, network infrastructure, industrial control systems, and SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems.
  • Prioritizing these assets based on how sensitive they are and how critical they are to the organization.
  • Performing a thorough risk assessment to identify vulnerabilities and potential threats and the impact they may have on the OT environment. All threats must be taken into consideration, including physical attacks, natural disasters, and malicious actors.
  • Implementing secure network architecture, such as firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, network segmentation, and secure remote access mechanisms, as well as closely monitoring logs and network traffic to detect the first sign of any unauthorized activity.
  • Implementing robust access controls, such as multi-factor authentication mechanisms, role-based access, and continual access reviews.
  • Designing a comprehensive risk management plan that includes actions and strategies to deal with risks and limiting the impact of potential breaches through preventive, detective, and corrective measures.
  • Performing vulnerability assessments and penetration testing to pinpoint any weaknesses in OT security.
  • Training all employees to follow security best practices. Educational sessions should cover the importance of security and proper cyber hygiene, and employees should be trained as to which steps to take in case of suspicious activity or an incident.
  • Establishing a comprehensive incident response plan. An effective plan should include clearly defined procedures for containing, eradicating, and recovering from a potential breach.
  • Monitoring and updating the security strategy based on identified weaknesses, systems updates, lessons learned from security incidents, and the evolving threat landscape.


The Role of Operational Resilience in Protecting Critical Infrastructure

Operational resilience ensures the ability of critical assets to minimize vulnerabilities, ensure continuity, withstand disruptive incidents, and promptly restore normal operations. An operational resilience strategy capable of protecting critical infrastructure requires a systematic approach capable of identifying, assessing, and mitigating threats that could disrupt business continuity or vital services such as transportation networks, power grids, and communication systems. 

An integrated operational cyber security risk-based strategy enables companies to:

  • Identify vulnerabilities by analyzing the correlation between security posture and asset inventory.
  • Accurately assess security posture controls, mechanisms, and compliance deviations.
  • Enrich asset attribution with operational context, known vulnerabilities, and security controls.
  • Prioritize mitigation actions based on potential exposure, exploitation, and criticality to operations.


Achieving Effective OT Risk and Security

The convergence of OT and IT systems has brought about convenience and automation that have streamlined business and physical processes. However, this convergence has also significantly increased the attack surface by creating new vulnerabilities. A robust, risk-based strategy can prevent unauthorized access, disruption, and manipulation. Such an approach can help organizations assess their exposure and minimize threats while ensuring that operations remain as undisrupted and safe as possible.

The following steps are needed to design an effective OT risk and security program:

Consult with all relevant stakeholders

Organizations should develop an effective OT security program with the input and involvement of executive stakeholders, domain experts, IT and OT teams, and experts in physical safety, compliance, and risk. They must continuously ensure that all stakeholders are aligned regarding risk reduction. 

Understand risk, safety, and security gaps

Organizations should carry out a comprehensive analysis of current security investments to understand if they are working properly and are providing optimal protection. They should identify any gaps and misconfigurations and take action to mitigate exposure. 

Deploy a risk management platform

Organizations should take a holistic and proactive approach to vulnerability and risk management. They must contextualize their security, risk, and safety through impact-driven risk analysis and deploy the proposed mitigation steps to reduce exposure.

Ensure safe and reliable operations

Organizations should continually reassess their operational state with an awareness of risk, safety, and security in the context of operations, it is vital to making ongoing critical business decisions. They must ensure that all domain owners operate safely and confidently, even if other aspects of the business are under attack. 


Build a Strong Risk Management OT Security Strategy

A strong OT risk management security strategy serves as a guiding compass on the journey toward OT security maturity. It allows vital OT services to remain uninterrupted, allowing organizations to stay ahead of threats, protect critical infrastructure, and comply with regulatory requirements.

As the threat landscape evolves rapidly, organizations must use a holistic risk-based approach to building operational resilience. This involves people, processes, and technology to mitigate risks and effectively address potential threats before they become business risks. This is a proactive and adaptive approach that includes threat intelligence, risk assessment, continuous monitoring, and the preemptive mitigation of cyber risk in the OT environment. This is exactly what we do at OTORIO.

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