Risks and challenges confronting IT/OT convergence and how to manage them

Courtesy of Brett Sayles

Information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) convergence in today’s interconnected industrial landscape is vital for maximizing efficiency. However, the ongoing trend toward convergence brings significant cybersecurity challenges. To effectively manage and reduce these risks, IT and OT teams must collaborate closely, leveraging their specialties to ensure comprehensive security. For example, IT specialists bring PC security and defense expertise, while the OT team brings hardware savvy crucial for the factory floor.

The distinct expertise of IT and OT teams

IT and OT teams have traditionally operated in separate domains, each with a unique focus and expertise. IT teams manage corporate networks, infrastructure and systems, emphasizing data security, network architecture and software development. On the other hand, OT teams specialize in managing industrial control systems (ICS), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and programmable logic controllers (PLCs). Their core objectives revolve around process control, reliability and safety. Unfamiliarity can make a PLC challenging for an IT-trained team to protect, sometimes leaving OT systems vulnerable or even “wide-open” and unsecured.

Specialized IT hacking tactics, such as network lurkers, crackers and virus distribution, may be common but not always required to break into OT systems. Basic phishing attacks or connecting over WiFi to an unsecured OT PC could give widespread access. Industrial WiFi networks are frequently insufficiently secure, leaving OT systems vulnerable to cyber breaches. An attack doesn’t have to be directed toward a product vulnerability if there is a weakness in security processes or vulnerable machines are unsecured.

Responsible vendors are learning from the weaknesses exposed in similar equipment to their own, ensuring they don’t have similar vulnerabilities and not waiting for a breach of their equipment to take action. The first step to building a secure plant is to have machines with security by design and security by default. Ensure your machines are designed ground-up for security, lockdown by default, and that the vendor proactively discovers and fixes vulnerabilities and potential attack vectors: firmware, software, process.

Challenges and overlapping risks

The convergence of IT and OT systems in industrial environments brings new challenges. Traditionally, OT systems were isolated from external networks, limiting potential cybersecurity risks. IT and OT teams have different priorities and objectives: IT is measured on how effectively it can lock everything down and secure access; OT is measured on maximizing plant floor uptime.

The growing interconnectivity between IT and OT systems demands a collaborative approach to address the increasing number of vulnerabilities. A cybersecurity breach can severely affect industrial operations, leading to financial losses, safety hazards and damage to critical infrastructure. Therefore, IT needs the collaboration of OT to understand plant floor processes to identify critical vulnerabilities and OT’s expertise so that protective processes and technologies offer security and maintain efficiency on the plant floor.

Collaborative measures for comprehensive security

To achieve complete security, IT and OT teams must foster collaboration and establish a shared understanding of their responsibilities. This collaboration entails several key measures:

  • Knowledge Sharing and Training: IT and OT teams should engage in regular knowledge-sharing sessions to understand the unique aspects of each domain. Training programs can bridge the knowledge gap and enhance awareness of potential threats and security best practices.
  • Coordinated Risk Assessment: Collaborative risk assessments allow teams to identify and prioritize potential vulnerabilities across IT and OT systems. This joint effort enables the development of targeted mitigation strategies.
  • Robust Access Controls: Implementing stringent access controls, such as multifactor authentication, privileged access management and network segmentation ensures that only authorized personnel can access critical systems.
  • Continuous Monitoring and Incident Response: IT and OT teams should work together to establish a unified monitoring system providing real-time visibility into both IT and OT networks. This shared visibility enables prompt detection, response and mitigation of security incidents.
  • Regular Updates and Patch Management: Keeping software and firmware up to date is crucial for minimizing vulnerabilities. Collaborative efforts between IT and OT teams can ensure that patches are deployed promptly and effectively across the entire industrial environment.

The collaboration between IT and OT teams in industrial environments is paramount to reducing cybersecurity risks. By leveraging their respective expertise, these teams can establish a comprehensive security framework that safeguards critical infrastructure, mitigates vulnerabilities and ensures the uninterrupted operation of industrial systems in an increasingly interconnected world.




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