Detect Malicious Activity in OT

September 5, 2023

Protect critical infrastructure: Detect and thwart malicious activity in OT systems with advanced security solutions. Malicious traffic comes from various sources – malicious software on your computer, malicious websites and more – but all indicate malicious intent – connecting with remote command and control servers and giving cybercriminals access to see your network devices and launch further attacks against them.

Early identification of this activity is vital to avoiding compromise in an OT environment, with changing threats taking advantage of any opportunities they find to compromise systems and compromise data. Recognizing threats early and protecting systems against damage will minimize risk while keeping staff working productively and safely.

Identifying Threats

Identification of threats involves identifying potential security breaches and their potential effects on an organization, along with developing and implementing plans to manage and mitigate those risks.

Threats come from various sources – natural, technological or manmade. Examples of natural threats could include earthquakes, fires or hurricanes while technological ones include computer viruses, cyberattacks or malware.

Emergency managers should carefully study past incidents and collect data about the area where they reside, gathering this from media sources, the National Weather Service and community members – these sources can also provide insight into whether or not certain threats could potentially emerge again in the near future.

They should create a comprehensive community profile of their area that includes details on geography, infrastructure and demographics to better prepare for potential disasters and respond accordingly.

Utilizing these elements, they should use them to construct a threat analysis model. This model will include many components – among them being the risk-level matrix where threat likelihood and impact calculations take place.

In this matrix, high likelihoods are given an initial score of 1.00 while medium riskiness receives 0.5 as their value; these scores are then multiplied with impact level to get an estimate for risk rating.

Risk ratings range from zero (low likelihood and no impact) to 100 (high likelihood and significant impact).

Ransomware attacks could damage productivity and business operations, while hacking attempts that compromise trade secrets could cost millions in lost revenue. To safeguard against such threats, organizations should conduct a threat assessment on their IT infrastructure.

This approach allows organizations to evaluate all potential threats that could impact their systems, and identify what needs to be done to prevent these attacks from taking place. Furthermore, this process identifies any vulnerabilities present within their system; and depending on the severity of each risk identified remediation can often require extensive effort.

Detecting Malicious Activity

Discovering malicious activity on your network is a key component of an effective cyber security strategy. Malicious threat actors are constantly devising new attacks and refining existing ones to escalate risk and compromise networks, whether acting independently or as part of cybercriminal groups – their sole motive being financial gain through an unauthorized breach.

For maximum network security, it is vitally important that all incoming and outgoing traffic be carefully monitored using an intrusion detection system (IDS) or intrusion protection system (IPS). By doing so, it will allow you to detect suspicious network activity early and take steps necessary to counterattacks quickly.

An IDS detects events which seem out-of-the-ordinary or suspicious, while an IPS can identify any malicious network traffic in real time and take immediate steps to block attacks on your network. Both devices provide visibility into your network to detect threats such as phishing attacks, ransomware infections and more.

Static malware detection tools utilize binary rules to match processes with known signatures or patterns, while new dynamic techniques based on artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) learn how to differentiate legitimate files and processes from malware. AI/ML algorithms can monitor file behavior, network traffic patterns, frequency of processes deployed or deployment patterns of new and unknown malware for detection purposes.

Attackers frequently target out-of-date and end of life systems to compromise, so taking steps to decommission them or remove them from your network is vital to reduce investigative surface area and limit any possible damage.

As part of a malware infection, cyber actors may use various command line tools and scripts to conduct reconnaissance on your network, providing vital intelligence that could be used later to launch further attacks or compromise other systems within it.

As soon as an attacker initiates malicious commands against your network, it is critical that you identify and respond immediately so as to reduce their impact on infrastructure and increase availability of key operational systems.

Responding to Malicious Activity

As soon as an operational cyber security incident arises, an expedient response must be put in place immediately. Incident responders must quickly assess its nature and severity while taking into account how it has an effect on operational processes and systems as well as assess its criticality.

At established organizations, incident processes begin with root cause analysis. In OT this step is particularly crucial as it requires understanding of processes being controlled as well as ways to avoid taking actions that might worsen or increase damage more than initially caused by threats themselves.

Once the root cause has been established, a response plan can be devised. This involves reviewing network and host alerts and evaluating threats in order to ascertain their severity, while taking into account any legitimate changes such as system upgrades or operational procedures that might trigger such alarms.

This process may include collecting artifacts such as logs and information regarding changes in system configuration. By having this data at hand during investigation, investigators can better comprehend the incident at hand and ascertain if additional resources are required for further review or remediation efforts.

Due to this, it’s crucial that when conducting investigations you collect as much data as possible relating to unauthorized accesses to systems, illegal connections to networks and any suspicious device activity. Furthermore, it should be stored securely for at least a year after collection.

Indices of Compromise (IOCs) should also be identified. This can be an extremely challenging task due to many contributing factors that lead to compromised activity such as timing, source location, destination location, port utilization, protocol adherence, file location integrity via hashing and file size/naming conventions.

Apart from these methods, it is also vitally important to employ frequency analysis. This algorithmic technique uses large datasets to establish normal traffic patterns within networks and host systems and thus enables more precise analyses of anomalous behavior while also decreasing false positives.

Operating Technology Security is a relatively new field within OT, which combines traditional IT security capabilities with an intimate knowledge of OT systems to protect OT environments from threats. Unfortunately, such experts are in short supply but their combination has proven essential in protecting these environments from threats.

Preventing Malicious Activity

OT systems oversee physical processes that drive critical industries such as manufacturing, energy production and distribution, water treatment and supply, transportation, healthcare and more. Unfortunately, they’re also vulnerable to attacks from malicious actors who employ various levels of skill and motive – from ransomware theft, vandalism and cyberterrorism to ransomware-style attacks with IP theft as an attack vector.

Attackers frequently launch their attacks against IT systems first before moving onto operational environments when security has been breached or patching has been delayed, creating potential disruption or harm for industrial organizations that have been targeted by these tangential attacks. These malicious acts often involve multiple vectors of attack resulting in significant physical or financial harm to affected organizations as a whole.

Therefore, it is imperative that a strong defense is put in place against malware and other forms of malicious activity. This requires employing security controls, procedures and policies which make it harder for attackers to breach systems, steal information or cause damage.

Anti-malware tools that have been tailored specifically for operational technology environments are the first line of defense against malware infections. Such anti-malware tools do not need to create signatures for each device in the fleet but instead detect anomalous behavior patterns within the cloud that indicate possible signs of infiltrators before they have an opportunity to infiltrate a system and cause havoc.

These tools should also be updated frequently with the most up-to-date AV signatures and detections in order to keep pace with an ever-evolving threat landscape. In addition, next-gen AV tools – which can be deployed across an organization’s fleet without having to individually install agents on every device – can provide greater protection from malware threats.

But many organizations find these solutions have a high maintenance cost and do not work effectively for embedded devices not capable of being deployed via the cloud. Furthermore, an organization’s fleet may include legacy-based systems which cannot easily be updated with more effective anti-malware tools over time.

As connected devices in OT increase, it’s essential that appropriate safeguards be put in place to secure them. This can be accomplished through network protections, asset inventory and vulnerability management policies covering all endpoints within the network – these policies include minimum secure configuration standards for endpoints as well as procedures for conducting vulnerability assessments and remediation as well as how patches should be deployed throughout systems in an environment.

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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