5 OT security practices your manufacturing business can’t ignore

Courtesy of Brett Sayles

The trend of digitization has brought many benefits to the manufacturing industry, but it has also exposed vulnerabilities in the operational technology (OT) systems used in these environments. As more and more industrial control systems (ICS) are connected to the internet, the risk of cyberattacks targeting these systems increases. If these systems are compromised, it can lead to serious consequences, such as production downtime, data theft, physical damage to equipment, environmental hazards and even harm to human life.

OT security is different from information technology (IT) security. OT systems are designed to control and monitor physical connected system processes, whereas IT systems are designed to manage and store data. OT systems often use proprietary protocols and hardware, have long hardware and software lifecycles, and have not historically been designed with security in mind, which makes them more vulnerable and exposed to attacks.

How to mitigate OT security risks

To mitigate these risks, it’s important for businesses to understand the differences in people, process and technology between OT and IT security and take steps to secure their OT systems. This includes implementing robust access controls, securing remote access to ICS, implementing sensible  security patches and updates, and conducting regular security audits and penetration testing. Additionally, businesses should establish a clear division (people, process and technology) of responsibilities between IT and OT teams to ensure that OT security is being properly addressed.

As the world becomes increasingly digitized, businesses must understand the importance of maintaining a strong cybersecurity posture in both IT and OT systems to prevent cyberattacks and protect their operations.

5 steps to harden your cybersecurity posture

Every company should consider the following five practices to strengthen their OT security posture:

1. Start somewhere: It’s imperative that businesses take proactive steps to prioritize OT cybersecurity. These can include conducting regular security assessments, implementing multilayered security measures, regularly updating software and hardware, training employees on cybersecurity common practices and putting an incident response plan in place.

Organizations should strongly consider working with a trusted digital safety practitioner to assess their current security posture, identify potential vulnerabilities, and implement customized and continuous monitoring security solutions. By doing so, they can ensure their industrial control systems are safe and protected against cyberattacks and can operate normally and securely. In an era of growing cyberattacks, ignoring the threat of OT cybersecurity is no longer an option for any business. Every journey must start somewhere, and the hardest step to take is often the first one.

2. Compile an accurate asset inventory: An asset inventory is a comprehensive list of all the hardware, software and other resources that make up an organization’s OT environment. It’s used to identify all ICS systems, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and other devices that can comprise an organization’s OT infrastructure.

An asset inventory is important for several reasons:

  • Visibility: By creating an inventory of all the devices in an OT environment, organizations can gain a comprehensive view of their systems and identify any potential security vulnerabilities.
  • Risk assessment: An asset inventory can be used to assess the risks associated with each device, including the potential impact of a security breach and the likelihood of it occurring. This information can be used to prioritize security efforts and allocate resources to the areas of greatest risk or vulnerability.
  • Compliance: Many industries, such as the energy sector, are subject to regulations that require organizations to maintain an inventory of their assets for regulatory compliance purposes.
  • Incident response: In the event of a security breach or other incident, an asset inventory can be used to quickly identify the affected devices and systems and respond effectively.

Compiling an asset inventory is an important first step and is quickly becoming common practice in securing an organization’s OT environment. This inventory should be continuously updated to reflect any changes in critical industrial assets and infrastructure. This allows organizations to better understand their OT systems underlying digital operation and take the necessary steps to protect against potential security threats.

3. Implement the proper digital safety measures: By identifying and understanding their assets and potential risk factors, organizations can begin implementing practical and effective digital safety measures. Some of the key actions businesses can take include:

  • Industrial endpoint protection: Implement endpoint protection solutions, such as antivirus software and firewalls, to prevent malware infections and unauthorized access to the network.
  • Continuous threat monitoring: Set up real-time monitoring and alert systems that can detect unusual or unauthorized activity and alert security personnel. Organizations can also use machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies to detect anomalies and threats that might not be easily noticeable to human operators. This can include intrusion detection systems (IDS), intrusion prevention systems (IPS), and security information and event management (SIEM) tools.
  • Secure remote access: Implement secure remote access solutions such as virtual private networks (VPNs) to provide secure remote connections to the network. This can help prevent unauthorized access to the network, even when employees are working from remote locations.
  • NERC CIP: Adhere to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s Critical Infrastructure Protection standards, which provide guidelines for securing the bulk power system in North America.
  • Regular penetration testing: Conduct regular penetration testing to identify and evaluate potential vulnerabilities in the network. This can help organizations identify areas for improvement and take proactive measures to mitigate risk.
  • Incident response: Develop and regularly test an incident response plan to respond quickly and effectively to security breaches or disruptions. This can include having a dedicated incident response team in place and conducting regular tabletop exercises to evaluate the organization’s preparedness.

By implementing these and other security measures, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of OT cybersecurity breaches and ensure the protection of their critical assets and operations.

4. Conduct a tabletop exercise: A tabletop exercise can be a valuable method of preparing an organization for a potential cyberattack on its industrial assets. It’s an opportunity to bring together all relevant stakeholders, including executives, to discuss and simulate a realistic security breach scenario.

The exercise helps identify potential gaps in the organization’s security posture related to people, process and technology, and allows the team to practice their response to a security incident. By engaging all stakeholders in the exercise, the organization can foster better collaboration and understanding between the different teams and ensure everyone is aware of their role in protecting the ICS environment.

Additionally, having the executives participate in the exercise can help raise their awareness of the risks and limitations of IT security measures in protecting industrial systems, and the importance of having a comprehensive OT security strategy in place.

5. Assign roles and create a plan to respond to and recover from OT disruptions: Having a clear plan in place and designating a team that accepts and holds OT digital safety and cybersecurity responsibility is crucial for ensuring effective and efficient OT security management. The specific roles and responsibilities will vary depending on the size and complexity of the organization, but some common designations include:

  • CISO (Chief Information Security Officer): In larger organizations, a CISO may be responsible for overseeing the overall security of the organization, including both IT and OT security.
  • CIO (Chief Information Officer): In some organizations, the CIO may be responsible for both IT and OT security. The CIO would then delegate specific responsibilities to other team members as needed.
  • Plant Manager: In smaller organizations, the plant manager may be responsible for overseeing the security of the OT systems.

Regardless of who is designated as the responsible party, it’s important that the team has the necessary skills, knowledge, and resources to effectively manage OT security. This includes having a clear understanding of the organization’s assets, risks and security requirements, as well as access to the necessary tools and technologies to effectively manage and monitor the security of the OT systems.

Having a clear plan in place and a dedicated team can help organizations ensure that their OT systems are secure and operational, minimizing the risk of costly shutdowns and business disruptions.




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