The Current State of Operational Technology Security



OTORIO’s Solution


OTORIO’s Benefits

  • Ability to conduct a safe operational security posture assessment without disturbing ongoing operations.
  • Improved ROI on pre-existing security controls and solutions by leveraging existing technology investments.
  • A comprehensive security assessment report, providing senior management with a full picture of the company’s OT cyber security posture.
  • Quick risk mitigation and hardening of site-specific OT network risks and vulnerabilities.
  • The company went from only relying upon detection to adopting a continuous, proactive risk-based assessment, mitigation, and management strategy to secure its OT environment.

This article looks at the current state of operational technology security, exploring its definition, components, threats, regulatory landscape, challenges, and standards.

Operational technology (OT) security has emerged as a critical concern in today’s interconnected and digitized industrial landscape. As industries increasingly rely on IT and OT system integration to optimize processes, improve efficiency, and drive innovation, OT security becomes paramount to ensure the reliability and safety of critical infrastructure.


Defining Operational Technology (OT) Security 

An OT network encompasses the hardware and software systems used to monitor, control, and automate physical industrial processes. The latter span a wide range of sectors—including energy, manufacturing, transportation, and critical infrastructure. 


ICS and Components of Operational Technology

Central to OT environments, ICS manage and automate critical processes. Its components can consist of human-machine interfaces (HMIs), programmable logic controllers (PLCs), remote terminal units (RTUs), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, sensors, actuators, and communication networks. Their interconnectivity enhances efficiency but also introduces potential vulnerabilities. OT security involves safeguarding it all from cyber threats that could disrupt operations, jeopardize safety, and compromise sensitive data.


Cyber Threats to Operational Technology Networks

OT networks have increasingly become prime cyberattack targets due to their criticality and the potential for widespread impact. Direct targets include SCADA and PLC systems that control processes and infrastructure. Indirect targets include systems such as HVAC, lighting, and building management systems that, if compromised, could indirectly impact operational reliability. 

Common OT security threats include:

  • Malware and ransomware – Malicious software (malware) can infect OT systems, thereby disrupting operations, stealing sensitive data, and/or encrypting critical files. Ransomware attacks specifically can lead to operational downtime and demand monetary payments for data recovery.

  • Phishing and social engineering – Attackers use phishing emails and social engineering techniques to trick employees into divulging sensitive information or installing malicious software. Spear phishing, where customized emails target specific individuals, is especially effective.

  • Insider threats – Malicious or negligent insiders with access to OT systems can intentionally or unintentionally cause harm to operations. Insiders might exploit their systems knowledge to compromise processes, manipulate data, or steal sensitive information.

  • Supply chain attacks – Bad actors target third-party vendors or suppliers to infiltrate an OT network. They compromise a vendor’s systems, which then serve as a pathway into a target organization’s environment.

  • Zero-day exploits – Cybercriminals exploit previously unknown vulnerabilities in software or hardware before vendors release patches. Such exploits can provide them with unauthorized OT system access.

  • Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks – Perpetrators can overwhelm a system or network with excessive traffic, causing it to become slow or unresponsive. In OT networks, DoS or DDoS attacks can disrupt critical processes and lead to operational failures.

  • Man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks – Hackers intercept communication between two parties, potentially altering exchanged information. In OT environments, MitM attacks can manipulate control commands or sensor data, leading to unsafe or inefficient operations.

  • Watering hole attacks – Miscreants compromise websites or online resources frequented by OT personnel. When staffers visit such sites, their systems become infected, potentially providing the attackers with a foothold in your OT network.

  • USB and removable media attacks – Bad actors deliver malware by exploiting the use of removable media (e.g., USB drives). Malware can spread when these media are connected to OT systems. The infamous Stuxnet is an example, whereby code on a thoughtlessly inserted USB stick infiltrated and destroyed Iranian centrifuges used in its illicit uranium enrichment program.

  • Physical attacks on network infrastructure – Cybercriminals might physically tamper with network infrastructure components, such as routers and switches, to disrupt communications and operations.

  • Credential Theft and Brute Force attacks – Attackers steal or guess credentials to gain unauthorized access to OT systems. Once inside, they can manipulate processes or steal sensitive data.

  • Data manipulation – Here, modified data transmitted between sensors and controllers leads to incorrect decisions or unsafe operations. This type of attack can be challenging to detect and mitigate.

  • IoT device vulnerabilities – Internet of Things (IoT) devices in an OT network can introduce vulnerabilities if not properly secured. Compromised IoT devices can provide attackers with entry points into your network.

  • Legacy system vulnerabilities – Older, unsupported systems might have known vulnerabilities that miscreants can exploit to gain access and control.

  • Remote access vulnerabilities – Remote access solutions used for monitoring or maintenance can be exploited if not properly secured. Perpetrators can abuse them to compromise OT systems.

  • Cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks – Bad actors inject malicious scripts into web applications used in OT environments, potentially leading to unauthorized access or data theft.

  • SQL injection attacks – Cybercriminals manipulate SQL queries to gain unauthorized access to databases and extract sensitive information.


Given the increasing sophistication of cyber threats targeting OT networks, enterprises must adopt a holistic cybersecurity strategy that includes preventive measures, continuous monitoring, incident response planning, and personnel training.

Protecting OT environments requires a deep understanding of the unique challenges posed by these threats and a proactive approach to mitigate the potential impact on critical infrastructure and industrial processes.


Industry Protocols and Regulations for OT

Several industry-specific protocols and regulations address the security and compliance needs of OT environments. Each is tailored to a specific industry or sector to ensure the safety, reliability, and security of critical infrastructure and industrial processes. Each addresses its respective industry's specific needs and challenges, contributing to a comprehensive OT cybersecurity approach across various sectors. Notable examples include: 

ISO/IEC 27001 –  This provides a structured approach to information security management systems (ISMS) that can be adapted to OT environments. It addresses risk assessment, mitigation, and compliance.

Organizations can tailor it to address your operational technology systems' unique risks and requirements. Implementing 27001 involves conducting risk assessments, defining security controls, and establishing an ongoing monitoring and improvement process.

NIST Cybersecurity Framework – This provides a comprehensive approach for organizations to manage and reduce cybersecurity risk across various sectors, including OT. It emphasizes the importance of identifying and prioritizing critical assets, protecting systems and data, detecting and responding to threats, and recovering from incidents. NIST’s guidance encourages organizations to develop a risk management strategy that aligns with your specific operational technology environment.

NERC CIP (North American Electric Reliability Corporation Critical Infrastructure Protection) –This set of cybersecurity standards focuses on the energy sector—particularly electric utilities. They’re established to protect the reliability of the bulk power system by ensuring the security of critical cyber assets.

NERC CIP requires organizations to have access control measures, incident response plans and other security measures in place. The standards are mandatory for all entities that have responsibility for the reliable operation of the bulk power system. 

IEC 62443 (Industrial Communication Networks - Network and System Security) – This IEC series provides a comprehensive framework for the security of industrial automation and control systems (IACS). It covers network security, system security, and security management. IEC 62443 is widely recognized and adopted by organizations and industries with critical infrastructure and industrial control systems.

It provides a structured approach to assess, mitigate, and manage cybersecurity risks in these environments, helping protect against cyber threats that could disrupt operations, compromise safety, or lead to other adverse consequences. 


Why Operational Technology Security is Crucial for OT Networks

Maintaining the integrity, safety, and continuity of industrial processes is critical for operational technology security. A cyberattack on your OT network can lead to production disruptions, equipment damage, environmental hazards, and even human safety risks. IT and OT system convergence increases your attack surface, necessitating robust security measures to prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, and malicious manipulation.


The Current Challenges of Risk Management in Operational Technology 

Risk management in an OT network is complex due to factors such as legacy systems, lack of standardized metrics, real-time operational constraints, and the potential for physical consequences. Assessing the impact of a vulnerability on operational processes requires collaboration between IT and OT teams and a full understanding of the potential cascading effects.

The current state of OT security is marked by the growing recognition of its importance in safeguarding critical infrastructure and industrial processes. The convergence of OT and IT systems, the rise of cyber threats, and the need to adhere to industry-specific regulations necessitate a holistic approach to security.

By understanding the components of OT, acknowledging the evolving threat landscape, and adopting recognized standards and frameworks, your teams can navigate the complexities of operational technology security and ensure the stability and safety of your industrial operations.


Operational Technology Security from OTORIO: How it Works

Meeting the unique challenges and requirements of industrial control systems and critical infrastructure, OTORIO focuses on protecting everything you operate. Our risk-based approach to the assessment, monitoring, and management of cyber risk of operational technology provides the following OT security best practices:

  • Ensures complete visibility of your entire facility
  • Performs OT risk assessments across the board
  • Secures operational data through 24/7 risk monitoring 
  • Provides business risk alignment and prioritization 
  • Improves your industrial security posture through risk mitigation


OTORIO’s unique, proactive technology assesses OT security threats by analyzing and visualizing four key components—threat, likelihood, vulnerability, and impact—and provides risk mitigation actions prioritized according to actual exposure and potential impact on operations. The OTORIO platform enables you to achieve an integrated, holistic security strategy for industrial control systems and cyber-physical systems (CPS).

In an era of increasing connectivity and digitization, robust OT security is no longer an option but an essential requirement to ensure your industrial processes' safety, efficiency, and sustainability.

Schedule a demo to learn how OTORIO can help your business.



What are the top benefits of a security fabric?

A security fabric offers a comprehensive and unified cybersecurity approach to protect connected devices, networks, applications, and data. Benefits include improved visibility of all assets on the network; enhanced protection against emerging threats; simplified policy enforcement across distributed infrastructures; automated identification and response to potential threats; and improved compliance with industry standards. All these features help reduce operational risk associated with cyber security.

What is an operational technology security framework? 

Operational Technology (OT) security is critical for assessing and safeguarding operational environments. It focuses on protecting physical assets, such as production processes, control systems, and networks. Organizations can identify threats and vulnerabilities by implementing risk management practices, safety standards, and cybersecurity operations.

This framework provides guidance for creating an OT security strategy, identifying cyber risks, and responding effectively. It strengthens security by integrating innovative technologies and optimizing protection against evolving threats.

What is the ISO standard for OT security?

The ISO (International Organization for Standardization) has created a standard process for OT security, called ISO/IEC 62443. This internationally recognized standard provides an overall framework and processes for the secure operation of OT systems.

It outlines best practices for authentication, authorization, encryption, patch management, identity and access management, asset inventorying, and other safety measures. Adopting this standard can help organizations develop a comprehensive OT security strategy and ensure that their OT systems are adequately protected against cyberattacks.

What is OT in NIST?

NIST Special Publication 800-82 provides guidelines for securing OT systems. Examples include industrial control systems (ICS), building management systems (BMS), and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).

It covers topics such as identifying operational technology risks and assets, assessing the security posture of the OT environment, implementing security controls, responding to incidents, and monitoring and maintaining system security. It also offers guidance on developing an OT-specific incident response plan and training personnel in appropriate practices.

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