Operational Technology

Why is OT Cyber Security Important?

Operational technology (OT) is the hardware and software used to control industrial equipment, including industrial control systems (ICSs) and supervisory control and data acquisition systems (SCADA). These systems are critical in managing complex infrastructure and industrial processes like power generation, water treatment, and manufacturing.

The sensitive nature of these systems makes them a prime target for targeted cyberattacks. An important aspect of the rise in security threats to OT is its increasing reliance on information technology (IT).

Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT)

While both Operational Technology and Information Technology play an important part in modern organizations, their roles are distinctly different yet increasingly interconnected. Here are some of the main differences:

  • OT primarily focuses on controlling and monitoring physical devices and processes in industrial settings. On the other hand, IT is designed to process, store, and transmit data and information. 
  • OT systems are often characterized by their need for real-time performance and high reliability. IT systems, conversely, can be more flexible regarding uptime and can typically handle brief interruptions for maintenance or updates.

Despite these differences, OT and IT work hand-in-hand to ensure operational and process efficiency. While OT handles the physical control and monitoring, IT focuses on data processing and communication. This synergy allows for more effective resource management and better coordination between departments.

Cyber Security Challenges With Operational Technology (OT)

Traditionally, OT security mainly focused on ensuring the physical safety and functionality of machines across various locations. But, thanks to the increasing integration with IT, factory operations are more reliant on digital technologies, opening up a plethora of cyber risks.

Several cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure have significantly disrupted essential services. Perhaps the most significant one was the Colonial Pipeline attack in 2021, which caused severe gas and fuel shortages throughout the U.S.’s East Coast.

One of the challenges that were made evident by that attack, which applies to the broader OT landscape, is the risk of ransomware and other similar attacks that are common in IT environments. These attacks typically occur due to poor security practices, such as opening phishing emails or using weak passwords. This leads us to the most important factor for OT security: improving cyber security behavior and culture in organizations.

The Human Element in OT Risk

Human error is the leading cause of cyberattacks. As such, it’s impossible to ignore the human element when discussing OT cyber security risk. There are several key factors to consider:

1. Error and misuse

Accidental errors like misconfigurations or using default passwords can significantly worsen the security posture of OT systems.

2. Insider threats

Due to the criticality of OT systems, it’s not out of the question that foreign governments would bribe employees to gain access or disrupt these systems. A 2015 SANS survey found that insider threats accounted for 25% of OT infections. The best way to deal with insider threats is to implement strict access controls and continuously monitor for unusual activity and behavior.

3. Lack of security awareness

OT personnel may not have the same level of cyber security training as IT staff, making them less likely to recognize phishing attempts, social engineering attacks, or the importance of following security best practices. 

Securing Operational Technology With Awareness Training

While humans can be the weakest link in an organization’s security chain, Security Quotient firmly believes that through education and awareness, this vulnerability can evolve into the greatest asset. Security awareness training (SAT) is the cornerstone of this transformation, equipping individuals with the necessary knowledge and skills to respond to cyber threats effectively.

The training can be tailored to OT environments, covering the basics of cyber security as well as specific risks and protocols relevant to operational technology. The main goal is to help employees understand the potential consequences of cyber incidents, which, in the case of OT, can affect physical safety, environmental impact, and operational continuity. Discussing significant cyberattacks like Colonial Pipeline can help illustrate the real-world implications of such incidents and how they affect organizations and societies.

To maximize the effectiveness of the training, SAT for OT personnel should incorporate practical exercises that simulate common threats, such as phishing attempts or social engineering tactics, tailored to the unique context of operational technology. This hands-on and gamified approach helps staff recognize and respond to security threats more effectively, building a proactive security posture.

Strengthen your Workforce’s OT Cyber Security Awareness 

Empower your team to safeguard critical infrastructure with our gamified “Cyber Risk Awareness for Operational Technology” course. 

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