5 Critical Components For Robust IT and OT Security

September 24, 2023

Discover the 5 critical components for robust IT and OT security. Protect your systems and operations effectively. Industrial processes like manufacturing, water treatment, energy distribution, transportation and healthcare rely on a highly specialized collection of technologies known as operational technology (OT). Unfortunately, these networks are increasingly being targeted by criminal actors.

The consequences of a successful attack can be catastrophic. Identifying vulnerabilities, prioritizing risks and developing a remediation roadmap is critical to achieving effective ICS security.

1. Physical Security

Physical security is a complex mix of technologies, processes and personnel that keep facilities and their equipment safe from real-world threats (like theft, vandalism or even accidental damage such as spilled coffee). It also protects systems and data from natural disasters, manmade catastrophes and cyberattacks. It includes everything from building construction to emergency preparedness and response plans.

It’s crucial for OT cybersecurity to understand where and how devices are connected to the network so they can take protective measures like patching, securing ports or implementing least privilege principles. It’s not always easy, however, given the stringent uptime requirements of many ICS devices that make it costly and risky to take them offline for upgrades or updates.

Moreover, legacy protocols that were designed for point-to-point communication over short distances didn’t include security features such as authentication, authorization or encryption. This is especially problematic as digital transformation breaks down IT-OT barriers, new technologies reshape processes and advanced cyberattacks emerge.

As a result, it’s important for organizations to adopt zero trust strategies that offer full visibility into all assets, wired and wireless, on and off the corporate network. To do this, they need to continuously discover all ICS networks, monitor network baselines and detect any changes in network connectivity. They need to also know which devices don’t support modern security controls so compensating controls can be implemented.

The key to effective physical security is deterrence, with multiple layers of protection and redundancy. This can range from physical measures like guards to more digital methods such as encrypting sensitive data and monitoring activity. It also means ensuring that any equipment that contains stored information or licensed software is securely sanitized before being disposed of or reused.

2. Network Security

The convergence of IT and OT infrastructure has opened doors for attackers to wander into and target production environments. Using attack tools designed to work with traditional IT networks, these malicious actors can access ICS systems and infiltrate them at multiple layers of the OSI model. The result is a compromised environment with the potential to cause physical harm, environmental damage and even national security incidents that put millions of people at risk.

To protect against these threats, a well-defined and mature network security program must be deployed. This involves assessing the architecture of an OT network and all connected devices to identify risk. This is important because the threat landscape in OT environments is different than the one for traditional IT networks. While many IT systems can be secured with standard firewalls and intrusion prevention systems, OT requires a more advanced approach.

Unlike attacks against IT networks that may be aimed at financial gain or data theft, the motives of cyberattackers on ICS/OT systems are typically more sinister. Rather than stealing financial assets, these hackers are looking to disrupt operations, inflict severe physical damage or facilitate catastrophic incidents that impact human life.

As such, defenders must be trained to understand OT networks and the unique characteristics of their devices. This is not a matter of simply meeting minimum compliance standards to avoid fines and steep penalties. It’s about ensuring that the most critical work areas are defended against sophisticated attacks that can affect everything from local manufacturing and energy distribution to global food processing, transportation and utility companies. With the right ICS/OT security strategy, these organisations can reduce the risk of lengthy operational downtime and the loss of life and property.

3. Data Security

As a cybersecurity best practice, you should always take steps to protect data from hacking. This involves implementing access controls to prevent unauthorized users from getting to your data, and it also requires you to keep a backup copy of your data that can be recovered in the event of a system failure, natural disaster, or other kind of data corruption or breach.

To do this, you need to authenticate users who want to get to your data by requiring them to use something like passwords, security tokens, swipe cards, or biometrics. You should also minimize the amount of data you hold by following data minimization practices and destroying old data whenever possible.

Another component of data security is preventing tampering by monitoring your data for changes and instituting a policy that doesn’t allow employees to download or access information without supervision. This is important because data tampering can cause serious problems that lead to loss of productivity and even a loss of life.

Cybersecurity threats are constantly evolving and hackers are looking for ways to exploit your systems. As a result, you need to constantly monitor your ICS network to spot vulnerabilities before hackers can do any damage. This requires a strong vulnerability management program that automatically tests your devices, vets ICS equipment and IoT devices, and prioritizes the most critical vulnerabilities based on their business impact.

As you can see, these five critical ICS security components form the foundation of an effective OT cybersecurity programme. However, implementing these controls is only one part of the equation; you must also have an organizational culture where the severity of cybersecurity risks is understood and prioritized by every level of your organization.

4. Threat Detection

Even when prevention is working effectively (and that’s over 98% of the time), there are always a few threats that get past. That’s why detection is the second pillar of an effective security stack. Robust threat detection looks at your entire infrastructure and assets, identifying malicious activity as it occurs, so you can respond in real-time before damage is done.

Often, this is caused by attackers looking to exfiltrate data, steal intellectual property or disrupt production to either gain a competitive advantage or cause harm to targeted groups. These attacks are highly dangerous because they can be aimed at a single piece of equipment that could interrupt operations, or a whole facility. This is why a defense-in-depth approach is so important for OT security.

Effective threat detection relies on technologies like Security Information and Event Management (SIEM), Network Traffic Analysis (NTA) and Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR). However, these solutions require a great deal of expertise and are typically not effective in the ICS environment. The non-profit MITRE Corporation has developed the ATT&CK for ICS framework specifically to address this challenge.

The best threat detection solutions use reference data points that have been collected during previous cyber incidents to isolate suspicious attack patterns and quickly identify the source. This allows teams to build forensic breadcrumbs called Indicators of Compromise (IoC) that can be traced back to the attacker. This enables rapid identification of the threat and correcting vulnerabilities to prevent a similar attack from happening again.

Additionally, robust threat detection should also be able to detect a range of other events that are indicative of a threat. For example, a denial of service attack is a common attack that causes networks to slow down or stop working entirely by flooding them with data to deny access. A good threat detection solution should be able to detect this by looking for changes in traffic that are indicative of an unauthorized intrusion into the system.

5. Incident Response

It is not enough to take preventative actions and protect your network — you also need to have a strong incident response plan in place. This is the way you can minimize damage, reduce recovery time, lessen costs and keep your ICS safe.

A key to incident response is identifying what kinds of events call the team into action, so the right people are alerted when something unusual happens. This can be determined by deciding on criteria that triggers an investigation, such as anomalous behavior or the generation of specific types of events. IT staff can use event data from monitoring tools, log files, error messages and firewalls to identify and determine what kind of security incidents have happened.

The incident response team should include SOC staff who receive and filter false positive alerts, security analysts who investigate the causes of incidents through deep autopsies of affected systems, and forensics experts who work with IT to recover evidence from compromised environments. The team should also include communications personnel who aid with the public relations aspect of the response and legal representatives who can address any possible criminal charges that may arise after an incident.

In addition to creating an incident response plan, it’s important to consider how your plan will integrate with business continuity and disaster recovery plans, as well as your organization’s general crisis management capabilities. Involving senior management in the creation of your ICS cybersecurity strategy and planning will help ensure that critical decisions are made quickly and that you have the resources necessary to react to a cyber attack. It will also make it easier for your organization to communicate during a crisis.

Ammar Fakhruddin


Ammar brings in 18 years of experience in strategic solutions and product development in Public Sector, Oil & Gas and Healthcare organizations. He loves solving complex real world business and data problems by bringing in leading-edge solutions that are cost effective, improve customer and employee experience. At Propelex he focuses on helping businesses achieve digital excellence using Smart Data & Cybersecurity solutions.

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