Operational Technology (OT) systems are the backbone of critical infrastructure and industrial operations. As these systems become interconnected and integrated with IT networks, they face escalating cybersecurity threats with devastating potential consequences. This article explores the evolving OT threat landscape and guides securing established industries against hidden hazards.
The Evolving Landscape of OT Cybersecurity
The cybersecurity risks associated with OT systems are evolving as these environments become more interconnected. OT comprises the hardware, software, and networks used to track industrial control and infrastructure. However, the integration of OT systems with traditional information technology networks has new cybersecurity challenges.
The increased connectivity between OT and IT environments provides more pathways for threat actors to gain initial access to critical systems. Once in one environment, attackers can pivot to compromise the other. The rise of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices has also introduced new risks, as their embedded sensors and remote administrative capabilities can be vulnerable to exploits.
Statista projects that IoT connections will skyrocket to 75.44 billion by 2025, transforming monitoring and control in industrial cybersecurity settings. Critical infrastructure providing energy, water, transportation, and other essential services depends on. Thus, they become attractive targets for sophisticated threat groups seeking to disrupt societal functions.
Recognizing the broadened attack surface, interdependencies, and potential physical consequences unique to OT systems is crucial. Their underlying importance to critical human and economic functions necessitates a heightened focus on cyber resilience. As OT environments become more connected to the outside world, established industries must adapt their security strategies and priorities to the evolving threat landscape.
Current State of OT Cybersecurity
The importance of securing OT contrasts with the slow implementation of cybersecurity measures. A survey revealed that 90% of organizations across manufacturing, energy, and oil/gas experienced debilitating production or supply impacts from cyberattacks recently. Threats are evolving, exposing gaps in digital security.
Key Vulnerabilities in OT Systems
Expanded Network Connectivity
As facilities connect operations systems to IT infrastructure and the internet for remote monitoring, system integrations, and data centralization, this provides more access points for threat actors to penetrate.
While connectivity enables efficiency gains, most legacy OT systems lack modern identity and access management controls. Remote access channels are also prone to attacks manipulating industrial communications.
Integration of IoT Devices
Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and instruments are adopted across essential utilities and heavy industries for predictive insights. However, connected devices with vulnerable firmware introduce new intrusion risks.
Their integration with control systems also risks connectivity disruptions from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks which can impact real-time operations.
IT/OT Convergence Exposing Latent Vulnerabilities
The convergence of IT and OT environments introduces new exposures, including infecting operations systems with malware that spreads from the corporate network.
While information security teams are well-versed in cyber protections, operational specialists often have infrastructure running dated software with latent vulnerabilities outside their purview. Keeping legacy OS security patches up-to-date remains an industry-wide struggle.
Insecure Supply Chains and Vendor Networks
Threat actors penetrate industrial targets through insecure third-party connections rather than direct attacks on the OT network. Compromised vendor credentials and remote access software have enabled many intrusions.
Most organizations still lack adequate visibility into the security standards and connections of their supply chain partners. This enables adversaries to maneuver undetected from lower security vendors into the customer’s OT environment.
The Realities of Cyber Threats in OT
The consequences of vulnerabilities in OT environments are not hypothetical. Threat actors breach networks for espionage or profit, and even minor intrusions can lead to catastrophic cascading effects. OT cybersecurity risks are growing as systems underpinning essential services become more digitized and connected.
While rapid digitization enables smart advances, the lack of cyber readiness leaves older critical infrastructure exposed. Legacy facilities in established utility, manufacturing, and energy sectors are often the most vulnerable.
Organizational Challenges in OT Cybersecurity
Implementing cybersecurity is challenging for organizations managing both extensive OT networks and business IT systems. Responsibilities surrounding OT security are often siloed, leading to gaps in detection and response across operational and information teams. Fundamental tensions also exist between efficiency and security priorities in industrial environments.
While operational continuity, output quality, and uptime are paramount for OT personnel, new platforms and terabytes of data widen the threat landscape with vulnerabilities that information security teams are often left mitigating alone. This requires collaborative processes between the operational and technological wings of an organization. Cyber preparedness is essential for both reliability and safety.
Best Practices for Enhancing OT Cybersecurity
The prospect of modernizing legacy OT infrastructure can be daunting, but prioritizing smart upgrades aligned with cybersecurity best practices is key. This includes establishing unified visibility and control across IT and OT systems through network segmentation, deploying centralized monitoring of assets and access, and implementing robust threat detection solutions.
Many breaches within industrial environments start through third parties and shared networks, spotlighting the need for stricter vendor screening and network access controls. Promoting a cyber-conscious workforce through specialized training is also pivotal.
Implementing cybersecurity is challenging for organizations managing both extensive OT networks and business IT systems.
Equipping in-house OT security expertise to lead strategic implementations tailored to operational environments is important as well. Those farsighted organizations with cross-department security teams, modernized networks, controlled remote connectivity, and layered critical system protections have guarded their OT infrastructure against intrusions for years already.
The Future of OT Cybersecurity
As digital transformation and interconnectedness accelerate, pioneering new security standards and policies will become increasingly important on organizational and regulatory levels. Government initiatives have already begun promoting cybersecurity frameworks tailored for industrial control system environments. Tech leaders also predict expanded adoption of secure-by-design systems and AI-powered cyber asset management to combat threats.
There remains an underlying need for operational continuity and efficiency balanced with layered security. Through collaborative OT/IT responsibility, organizations can install cybersecurity as an enabler rather than a hindrance to smart advancement. It is only by evaluating and securing existing industrial assets against modern hidden threats that infrastructure underpinning vital societal functions avoids becoming the backbone broken by cyber hazards.
OT cybersecurity threats are real and imminent dangers to established industries. As digital transformation accelerates, the attack surface will only expand further. Organizations must take decisive action now to address the hidden hazards within their OT environments through pragmatic collaboration, continuous monitoring, and a resilience-focused culture.
The future will bring more complexity, but industries that build robust cybersecurity foundations today will maintain their integrity for years to come.
How are OT systems becoming more vulnerable to cyberattacks?
Traditional air-gapped OT systems are now adopting internet connectivity and cloud integrations for data analysis, operational insights, and smart automation. While this enables greater efficiency and functionality, it also expands the attack surface. Remote access channels, integrated communications systems, and weak authentication methods introduce new risks as well.
What are the most common types of cyber threats faced by OT systems?
Besides expanding ransomware and backdoor deployment threats, OT environments face phishing lures tricking engineers into relinquishing credentials, attacks on industrial communications protocols, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, and vulnerabilities from connected IoT sensors and devices.
How can organizations balance operational efficiency and cybersecurity in OT?
Implementing basic protections like network segmentation, multi-factor access authentication, and anomaly detection solutions provides foundational security without hindering operations. Further safeguards like controlled remote access and dark site redundancy may involve more costs yet ensure continuity after incidents. An OT cyber strategy tailored to the organization’s appetite for risk is essential.