Operational Technology (OT) Security Debunked | IT-OT Convergence | HCL Blogs

Operational Technology (OT) Security Debunked

Operational Technology (OT) Security Debunked
August 31, 2021

A new-age industrial revolution to protect the world from cybercrimes has begun. The recent events of cybercrime in the first few months of 2021, have impacted critical operations and led to a series of reactive regulations and policies put in place by the US government.

This article is focused on OT security and its significance in today’s world. It will help the reader understand the basics while also recommending steps to secure the environment and mitigate risk as much as possible.

OT security demystified

OT security is a term commonly used in environments that have some kind of process or discrete automation. As the name suggests – Operational technology security protects the operations and technology required to stay productive in today’s increasingly competitive landscape. 

It stands for the protection of traditional operations and assets from cyber incidents. The need to secure today’s OT environments comes from the increased connectivity between the IT and the OT systems as well as the growing need for seamless data transfer between these two diverse environments.

The significance of OT security

Would you want to wake up in the morning to find that the ingredients of your favorite beverage contain chemicals unsuitable for human consumption? Or that the water we drink has disease-causing contaminations that can even cause death? Or that the fuel in your vehicle has caused your engine to stall?  

These are just a few examples of the endless possibilities and enormous repercussions that are there, and is an unfortunate reality in today’s world. Waking up to this new era of cybercrime is not only concerning but quite honestly, very scary. So, what led to these challenges and why weren’t they identified in the past?

While that is a loaded question with several causes of failure listed on the World Wide Web, let’s look at the underlying technology which is the leading cause for these disruptions.

The ease of data transfer between IT and OT environments

In the past, traditional OT systems were “air-gapped” and isolated from the IT domains, which gave a false sense of security. The production environment was kept separate to a large extent and did not interact with the IT based systems. However, as industry 4.0 gained dominance and the concept of smart manufacturing became a reality, the connectivity between these two traditionally siloed domains increased.

In the past, traditional OT systems were “air-gapped” and isolated from the IT domains, which gave a false sense of security

The advent of Ethernet on the plant floor was a significant change in the ways these two environments now operate. Today, real-time manufacturing data is made available to remote workers, who might be working from a coffee shop, away from the organization’s intranet. However, this brings unique security challenges. The widely used term “IT-OT convergence” unfortunately does not give OT security the necessary prominence it requires. This is an open invitation to the threat actors leading to more frequent attacks.

Industry experts predict that IT-OT will only continue to converge, and the faster the OT administrators do their best to understand the IT environment, the easier it will be. IT-OT convergence begins with understanding what each environment does and how they differ from each other. A comprehensive cybersecurity strategy that considers the entire security lifecycle, beginning from the production floor and up to the enterprise, is the key to protect the critical assets, or crown jewels from malicious intent and adversaries.

Now that the industry is finally waking up to this new reality of protecting the critical OT infrastructure, the question remains – where and how do I begin?

Securing an OT environment

Most organizations approach security from a piecemeal viewpoint. They look at their most critical assets and invest in the tools and money needed to secure that piece of the pie. So, if a site has five critical automation islands, they look at securing those zones, along with the upstream and downstream traffic. The gap however lies in between these zones.

That is an exposure which leads to vulnerabilities, and in turn, risks and threats. Very few organizations have an in-depth defense approach to warden off the threat actors in a comprehensive manner. Some of the reasons these vulnerabilities exist, include:

  • The integration of the enterprise software into the manufacturing environment and their inherent vulnerabilities
  • Loosely configured firewalls
  • Improper DMZ configurations
  • Network segmentation
  • Lack of change control policies

The complete list is not only long and extensive, but quite unrealistic and unattainable to remediate in a single-shot approach. The main reason why organizations fail to attain a decent security posture is that they deploy teams to address all the challenges across silos. They don’t   realize the domino effect that may occur if any one of these procedures are not given due diligence, supervision, and effective change control policies.

Industry standards dictate critical steps that must be undertaken from a holistic and in-depth defense viewpoint, to achieve the desired security posture. These critical steps include (but are not limited to):

  • Asset identification
  • Vulnerability management
  • End-point protection
  • Network segmentation
  • Secure-remote access
  • Patch management
  • Device management
  • Security incident and event management
  • Threat intelligence

All these afore-mentioned priorities are not only relevant but also necessary in attaining a mature security posture. Miss any of them, and the program fails. The task seems daunting and ambitious, and often fails due to a lack of oversight and expertise in these domains.

Help is a click away

As an executive or a leader in charge of security in your organization, managing these tasks can become daunting and overwhelming, causing productivity and efficiency to suffer. With the ongoing demands of productivity, these challenges increase, and the organization cannot scale as required.

To address the concerns, the expertise of reputed global organizations dealing with these challenges play an enormous role from an advisory, consulting, assessing, implementing, and managing viewpoint. 

Therefore, most organizations have outsourced their security operations to HCL – a global leader in service delivery, optimization, resourcing requirements, and managing end-to-end comprehensive security program that is aided by world renowned partners, efficient personnel, and thought-leadership consultants accessible worldwide.

For more information on HCL’s Operational Technology expertise, visit: /engineering-rd-services/operational-technologies