Securing Operational Technology – Effective Strategies Against External Threats

Operational technology (OT) includes hardware and software that monitors and controls physical devices and events. These systems are responsible for everything from subway trains to power stations.

With OT increasingly becoming digital and Internet-connected, cyber attacks pose serious threats. Traditional security methods, such as air-gapping devices from on-network devices, no longer work.

Monitoring and Response

No system is entirely immune, but organizations can significantly enhance external threat safeguards for operational technology. By prioritizing robust disaster recovery plans, fostering effective communication and collaboration among employees, and investing in secure infrastructure, organizations can make it significantly more challenging for external actors to disrupt their operations. These proactive measures create a layered defense against cyber threats, safeguarding critical OT systems and minimizing potential damage.

In addition, it is essential to monitor the progress of security efforts, ensuring that they are on track. This can be done by analyzing upstream and downstream telemetry to understand how a business performs against its threat model. It is also essential to report meaningfully on monitoring and evaluation efforts. Quantitative data without context can be misleading and obscure a program’s results. By combining quantitative data with narrative reporting, businesses can ensure that they are getting the most value from their investment in security.

Industrial robots, programmable logic controllers, generators, and other physical devices are all supervised by operational technology (OT), which comprises hardware and software. OT security procedures shield this equipment from cyberattacks, which might cause harm or even fatalities. Historically, OT devices worked in isolation from IT networks and were often air-gapped, meaning they didn’t communicate with on-network equipment. However, the convergence of IT and OT and Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity introduces new opportunities for hackers to access and attack these devices.

Detection and Response

Even though external threats are impossible to eliminate, minimizing their impact is possible. An effective way to do this is by performing a risk assessment. This will help identify the threats most likely to impact an organization and develop mitigation strategies. This can be done in various ways, including tracking news stories, monitoring social media, and attending industry events.

A risk assessment can also determine an organization’s most valuable assets. It is critical to protect these assets at all costs. Creating incident response plans, putting security measures into place, raising awareness, and providing training are ways to achieve this. Another critical step is to monitor the environment. By doing so, organizations can detect threats early and respond quickly to mitigate them before they cause damage.

Cyberattacks’ increasing frequency and complexity necessitate solutions that provide better threat detection and response capabilities and more visibility. Among these is endpoint detection and response (EDR), which provides visibility into the activities of an organization’s endpoint devices to find malicious activity as it happens.

Securing OT is challenging, as it involves specialized equipment and software that may need to be designed with cybersecurity in mind. Additionally, access to OT systems is often limited to specific groups of people due to safety regulations. This means there are many non-traditional endpoints in OT environments, and they need the computing power or operating system to support conventional security tools like antivirus and antimalware.

Detection and Prevention

The detection part of the strategy involves proactively monitoring for external threats and identifying anomalies. This can be accomplished by utilizing intrusion detection and prevention systems, antivirus software, next-generation firewalls, NGFWs, and more. These solutions can help identify potential risks and send them to the appropriate team for further analysis and remediation. In addition, a clear escalation path should be established so that threats are appropriately escalated and handled by the right people at the right time.

Detection is more than just identifying known threats; it’s about spotting anomalies, including unknown attacks like zero-day exploits. This is where cutting-edge technologies like machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) come into play, allowing them to search for new or evolving threats beyond patterns and signatures.

It’s also important to consider the possibility that malicious or negligent insiders could cause problems in OT environments. For example, an employee might accidentally introduce malware into a critical system by using a personal device to connect to the system or by downloading and installing malware from the internet. To prevent this, limiting the use of external hardware is vital. This can be accomplished by assigning each piece of equipment a dedicated network and using antivirus programs to limit the spread of malware if it’s introduced.

Monitoring and Response

As cyberattacks become more common and sophisticated, they will likely keep IT professionals up at night. It’s no longer a question of if an organization will be attacked but when. As such, businesses must monitor and respond to external threats as soon as possible to mitigate any damage caused.

To protect against these threats, organizations should invest in various tools to monitor and detect malicious activity. This can include everything from network security monitoring to managed detection and response. Additionally, organizations should conduct a risk assessment to identify their most significant vulnerabilities. This will help them to prioritize their efforts and resources accordingly.

One of the most effective ways to monitor and respond to external threats is by working with a Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP). MSSPs offer 24/7 monitoring services and can quickly detect and block attacks. Additionally, they can also provide threat intelligence and alerts to customers.

In addition to working with an MSSP, businesses should ensure that they have a disaster recovery plan in place. This will help them get back up and running quickly after an attack so they can continue to operate and serve their clients. Another way to protect against external threats is by using a secure VPN. At DQE, we offer private and direct connectivity to top-tier cloud service providers, which helps keep your data safe and bypass public internet.

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