What is operational technology (OT) security?

Every Internet user has heard of Informational Technology, better known as IT. But the term OT may not ring a bell for those unfamiliar with industrial processes. Operational Technology (OT) includes all the equipment responsible for the operation of an infrastructural facility. It’s a niche system that can have incredibly damaging and even life-threatening repercussions if comprehensive and effective operational technology security is not achieved. 

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What Operational Technology Security Means

Unlike IT, the goals of OT security focus on safety and reliability rather than confidentiality and accessibility. Effective OT security involves using OT cybersecurity software to monitor, analyze, and control industrial systems and machinery either on-site or remotely. Such software allows for centralized access to all working hardware, providing OT teams with a bird’s-eye view of their entire operational infrastructure from endpoint to endpoint. This makes it significantly easier to address and resolve anomalies as soon as they’re detected, and before they can inflict significant harm.

OT security is a relatively new necessity, ushered in as the demand for the Internet of Things (IoT) grows. IoT allows devices to communicate with each other seamlessly, bringing households and businesses the convenience their busy schedules demand. To increase efficiency, accuracy, and productivity, many warehouses and plants have upgraded their industrial hardware with interoperable capabilities, using Internet-reliant platforms to keep operations running without the need for constant human intervention. 

Technological progress, however, often comes with new vulnerabilities. The cybersecurity risks generally associated with Internet use are brought to bear on industrial systems once they adopt IoT. But existing IT cybersecurity solutions won’t provide the best protection for OT interfaces.


The Difference Between IT and OT

To best understand how IT security and OT security differ in approach, we have to look at why cybercriminals breach IT and OT environments in the first place. IT hackers want valuable information, whereas OT hackers want physical disruption. In an OT facility, hackers often use unprotected IoT-enabled equipment as a trail of crumbs to lead them to a central control system sans credentials. Imagine a water bottling plant that runs through three primary stages: collection, purification, and packaging. Without an OT security system in place, one apparatus can be discreetly disrupted, causing contaminated water to be shipped off to consumers without immediate notice and leading to widespread legal, health, and economic consequences.

In strictly IT-backed enterprises, hackers fish for credentials that will get them into a server housing highly sensitive and personal information, which they can use for personal and financial gain. However, IT hackers cannot control the equipment settings and functions to the extent that OT malware can.

Therefore, OT security aims to protect physical assets, including equipment, products, and people, while IT security focuses on protecting data and how it is used. For example, an excellent OT solution can shut down an entire operation as soon as a piece of equipment goes awry, giving leadership ample time to fix the issue and trace it to a single source. Since OT processes move on a step-by-step basis, such breaches are much easier to spot and patch. On the other hand, IT breaches can take months to resolve due to the sheer number of possible entry points that could be used to infiltrate a private network.

Why is OT Security Important?

Cyberattacks have already cost several companies millions — from a shipping terminal to an electric power grid — and they won’t stop. According to the 2022 Global Risks Report, digital commerce will reach an $800 billion growth in value by 2024. However, three million cyber professionals are needed worldwide to keep up with current online threats, signaling a need for broader security initiatives for OT-based institutions.

The main problem with lackluster (or a lack of) OT security is rooted in the grand scope of OT use across industries. A significant proportion of our institutions— hospitals, manufacturing plants, transportation systems, utility firms, and even office buildings — use OT daily. Anything from the temperature of perishable foods to the availability of electricity on an ICU floor can all be altered if effective and complete operational technology security is not achieved. An inability to invest in a solid OT cybersecurity solution can ultimately mean the difference between profits and revenue loss, safety and danger — even life and death.

Common Security Challenges That Require OT Cybersecurity

With operational technology, malware can enter critical systems via external hardware or the Internet. When a dongle, such as a USB flash drive, is used on several computers or equipment, it runs on the network to which each device is connected, increasing the probability that the dongle will be infected with malicious code. It’s recommended to assign specific external hardware to a particular network to reduce the risk of this kind of exposure. Anti-virus programs can also serve as an extra barrier of protection in case external hardware has to be used outside of its assigned domain. 

Additionally, cybersecurity experts warn enterprises and institutions against being ill-prepared for “air gaps” as they upgrade their OT infrastructure with IoT technology. Prepping and ensuring industrial control systems security by safely managing and storing existing data before IT is integrated helps prevent possible pockets of exposure that hackers could take advantage of. Once OT environments are optimized with IT, bots and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks become of great concern since they can harness a single network connection to disable entire OT systems or flood them with spam-like activity.

But even the most comprehensive OT cybersecurity solution is not immune to one inevitable vulnerability: human error. Irregular surveillance, shared credentials, unorganized emergency protocol, and general negligence can happen at any moment — which is why hackers rely most on human error. Consistently training and refreshing employees on essential IT and OT security practices will keep them vigilant and quick to respond to suspicious behavior.

The Components of Operational Technology Security

An extensive and reliable OT security framework should be scalable, meaning that every component of an OT environment must be accounted for. From groups of hardware to individual devices and sensors, OT security measures should cover both ICS and SCADA security:

  • Industrial Control Systems (ICS): While OT refers to the hardware and software components of a functioning industrial facility, ICS refers to the physical functions of all machinery, equipment, and devices as they operate in tandem with each other (think of a flavor manufacturing facility, wastewater treatment plant, and so on). Industrial control systems security prioritizes machine performance and staff safety.
  • Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA): As its name implies, SCADA makes up the informational component of OT. A subset of ICS, SCADA is a centralized control hub that allows a manager to monitor equipment status, pinpoint alarms, and adjust hardware settings in real time.

By mapping out an ICS and SCADA security plan to keep all systems running and employees safe, facilities can avoid coverage gaps that hackers are waiting to exploit.

Remote Secure Access Management Is the Key

Because of the IT/OT convergence, the management of both ICS and SCADA systems is increasingly being handled remotely. The manufacturer of industrial equipment may no longer send a maintenance engineer on-site to make adjustments or upgrades, but rather conduct the process remotely. The same is true if a site manager needs to make adjustments to the performance of critical machinery, such as in a paper mill or power plant.

These tasks are critical since a malicious user might bring the operation of an entire site to a grinding halt or inject the system with malware that spreads from site to site.

On-site safety and security has been top-notch in the OT world for years, but remote access management introduces new types of requirements. Industries often find themselves lacking in both the IT/OT tools and the skills.

What’s worse, IT experts lack the skills required to manage remote access to industrial equipment, because the protocols used are often non-standard and vendor-specific.

An ideal solution is an access lifecycle management tool that covers both the IT and OT aspects of cybersecurity. The requirements include:

  • Supporting vendor-agnostic access to industrial and IT targets alike through a single pane of glass
  • Identifying each user and leaving a solid audit trail of activities
  • Easy-to-use access management tool for maintenance engineers and administrators alike
  • Workflow approvals for each maintenance job
  • Restricting access privileges to the minimum required to get the job done
  • Managing passwords and encryption keys used to access industrial targets

Guard Your OT Infrastructure Against Breaches with SSH

Supervising an entire OT system in addition to tackling regular day-to-day objectives can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. SSH’s PrivX OT solution support convenience without cutting corners by consolidating every component of your IT/OT system into a secure platform for optimal visibility, access, and scalability. Credentials managed and confidential, workflow approval for jobs are built in and every session is identified with a solid audit trail of activities.

PrivX OT offers models with varying classification levels for managerial teams that require individualized authorized access, to ensure responsible use. Reach out to us today to learn more about how PrivX OT can optimize your operational technology security to keep both your data and people safe. You can also read more in our Secure Remote Access Management Buyer's Guide for OT.