The Three OT Security Dangers of R&R

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The convergence of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) networks increases the complexity of and risks to systems that have long been air-gapped to ensure security. The addition of potentially thousands of industrial internet of things (IIoT) devices for sensing and instrumentation compounds those challenges exponentially.

As operational and cyber risks multiply, we, unfortunately, see too many companies embrace R&R, and that is not ‘rest and relaxation.’ It is ‘react and rush.’ This trend occurs across companies of various sizes and varying stages of their IT/OT convergence journeys.

Through my work in OT security, I have seen many organizations react – waiting for incidents to occur before they do and rushing to find a solution. This reactive approach is often due to limited awareness of OT security challenges, and threats or the prioritization of other investments focused on increased productivity instead of securing their infrastructure. But when organizations react, they often rush to solve a security challenge or respond to a corporate or regulatory mandate to a detrimental effect. We all know that rushing potentially leads to errors; with large OT/IT organizations, those errors can have substantial economic or long-term impacts. In the heat of the moment, organizations may embrace solutions that address only part of their needs. That leaves them exposed or needing to pursue additional investments not long after the first inadequate purchase.

R&R behaviors are resulting in the significant rise of three major OT security dangers:

  1. Making the Wrong Investment

    Rushing to purchase a solution in response to a costly cybersecurity incident can force an organization to think small and overlook broader concerns they would see given the time to plan carefully. It’s human nature to end up often making tactical decisions as opposed to strategic ones that would bring more benefits in the medium and longer-term, and that would help solve a bigger problem than the one we are tackling today. Similarly, rushing a purchase decision may lead us to select a solution purely based on what functionality it does or does not have, rather than factoring in other critical criteria such as the solution’s ability to scale or the vendor’s long-term support capabilities. For example, a company may choose solutions that solve an OT device visibility problem or offer threat detection solely but don’t allow to take response actions based on observed threats. Therefore, it will not be able to mature with the organization to its next stage.

  2. Limiting OT Security Projects to Small Pilots

    Companies are allocating limited dollars to OT security and often only conducting small pilots because they don’t see the value in scaling from the outset. This is often due to the lack of concrete and measurable project objectives and KPIs. Measuring a project’s success and value isn’t easy without a clear scope and well-defined strategic objectives, especially one involving cybersecurity. Unfortunately, that can lead to project abandonment, with the security gap and attack surface remaining wide open.

  3. Potential Collateral Damage via Malware and Ransomware 

    As companies address challenges in limited steps or scope, they unknowingly create protection gaps. For example, an organization might tackle visibility challenges first and only with IT systems, then move onto OT; or they may only tackle attack surface visibility challenges without segmentation and control capabilities. The byproduct of these partial solutions is parts or entire OT systems becoming collateral damage during a malware infection or ransomware incident. In addition, malware intrinsically tries to maximize its spread, so even companies that are not initially targeted by an attack may easily fall victim to it, as we have seen in the past years.

With the pressure to embrace modern technology, adopt new tools and practices, and gain the business and competitive advantages that come from integrating IT, OT and IoT devices and networks, it is understandable that missteps may occur. However, upfront thought, strategic planning and a bit of patience will go a long way to helping operators gain the benefits while preserving security on which their business, and their customers, depend.

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