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Cars, Medicine, Electric Grids: Future Hackers Will Hit Much More Than Networks in an IT/OT Integrated World

Intelligent systems must include the right cybersecurity protections to prevent physical threats to operational technology.

For the first two decades of the Internet era, operational technology (OT) in places like factories and power plants remained mostly isolated from IT systems. While the fear of cyber intrusions grew among their counterparts in IT, workers in these physical settings were far more focused on safety precautions to protect people from the machines, products, and chemicals within those spaces.

But in the past decade, the business case for connecting computerized OT systems with the IT systems running the business has become so compelling that companies are rushing to create links between the two. Through these links, IT is now regularly connected to and communicating with the operational infrastructure. Leveraging technology in this way has led to full-scale digital transformation within the OT environment, improving efficiencies, automating processes, and extracting data insights. Cars today have enough software built into them that you almost forget about the steel. Pharmaceutical companies are now regularly using smart manufacturing, intelligent factories, and IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) to create new drugs in record time. The electric grid is running with smart metering technology to identify warning signs of potential outages before the lights actually go out.

While increasing connectivity to OT systems can save an organization millions of dollars, the savings can pale in comparison to the cost of a cybersecurity breach — from brand reputation damage to the potential harm from a physical threat — as we recently saw with the US pipeline shutdown due to a ransomware attack. If such connectivity is not carefully managed, hackers who infiltrate the IT network may gain access into OT — at which point they can do everything from disrupting the operation of a specific tool or machine, to causing an explosion or poisoning a water supply. As we have seen in publicly reported cases, successful OT cyberattacks can shut businesses down for days or weeks, causing widespread impacts across an organization's ecosystem of suppliers and customers.

The more we digitally transform and interconnect systems, the more the cybersecurity of those digital systems becomes essential to reducing physical risk. Here are some techniques organizations can use to prevent, detect, and respond to OT cyberattacks.

Preventing Attacks Against OT Systems
In an ideal world, the best defense against a cyberattack on OT is to prevent the hack from happening in the first place. For an OT environment, preventative controls include leveraging identity and access management (IAM), practicing a zero-trust architecture, utilizing a vulnerability management solution, and properly segmenting the network. All can stop an attacker at the door.

  • IAM enables you to not only identify your OT users, devices and programs, but also to control their access within the network.

  • Vulnerability management identifies which aspects of your OT environment are insecure so that you can address those vulnerabilities through patching, isolation, monitoring, or other compensating controls. This can now be safely done in an OT site.

  • Network segmentation makes it more difficult for attackers to move laterally, giving you the opportunity to contain outbreaks and limit the amount of damage they cause. Proper network segmentation can reduce the impact of a breach such as a ransomware attack.

All these techniques fall under the overarching umbrella of zero trust, with a goal of placing obstacles and barriers along every step the attacker will have to take.

Detecting Early Warning Signs of OT Cyberattacks
While a good zero-trust architecture will slow them down, determined attackers will methodically work to defeat your cyber defenses. Detection is key to catching the early signs of a cyberattack before it causes significant impact, destruction, or data theft. To perform such detection within your OT environment, you will need the same type of monitoring that many organizations have established in their IT systems over the past decade. The monitoring should be continuous and designed to identify potentially suspicious or malicious activity. On the factory or plant floor, monitoring should detect malfunctions in production lines, equipment, or connected devices. It's important for organizations to teach IT and OT team members how to recognize warning signs of a potential breach, so an investigation can take place quickly to address the threat.

Responding to OT Network Breaches
When an attacker finds his or her way into your OT systems and devices, your organization must be prepared to respond swiftly and decisively. Your incident-response plan should be activated to locate the intruder, cut them off from doing further damage, and push them back out to wherever it was they came from. It also should swiftly remediate any damage caused by the attack, including resetting the configurations of affected equipment, reimaging affected computers, and recertifying the effectiveness of safety systems.

Within OT environments, incident response must focus on safety first, so that people and property are protected while the business works to resume normal operations as quickly as possible. For organizations delivering healthcare or public utility services, not only must the safety of the organization's personnel be considered but also the safety of the community and other people within the organization's areas of service.

Moving Toward a Culture of OT Cyber Safety
With the increasing connectivity among operations systems, OT networks, and IT environments, employees across all roles and departments have an increasing role to play in protecting those systems from invisible cyber threats. Whether this technology is in a car, an electrical grid, or behind a life-saving drug or vaccine, such connectivity is critical to the future of an organization's development, production, and performance.

Most operations organizations — whether in manufacturing, healthcare, utilities, or critical infrastructure — already have a culture of safety in place. By protecting OT environments from cyber threats, organizations can extend their cultures of safety to include cyber safety, as well.

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Amichai Shulman, CTO and Co-founder of AirEye
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