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Bridging the gap to safeguard critical infrastructure
Wed, 19th Jul 2023

As organisations increasingly embrace digital transformation and Industry 4.0, the boundaries between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) are blurring, creating new opportunities and challenges for cybersecurity. The integration of OT systems into IT networks expands their attack surface and creates new risks that need to be managed. In particular, industries such as manufacturing, energy, and healthcare are facing growing threats of cyber attacks that could disrupt critical infrastructure, cause physical harm, and result in financial losses and reputational damage.  

In this article, we will examine the evolving nature of OT security in the age of Industry 4.0 and explore some of the key strategies and technologies that can help organisations to stay ahead of the curve and protect their OT assets and operations. 

Differences between OT and IT Security  

In simplistic terms, information technology (IT) refers to computers and connected networks. This type of system relies on data to operate; thus, IT security experts focus on protecting data. OT systems are composed of software and hardware elements, as well as other industrial components.  

In addition, OT security differs from typical IT systems by focusing on safety first, followed by uptime assurance. Compared to IT systems, which may require temporary shutdowns for patching and updates, OT places priority on keeping production continuous. To ensure no disruption of operations, OT requires monitoring and safeguarding against potential breaches that could disrupt operations or cause hazardous events. 

The integration of OT and IT security  

As mentioned, OT and IT have traditionally been two distinct entities with different requirements. However, the digital transformation of industrial operations has brought them closer together.  

In the past, ensuring the safety and uninterrupted operation of OT systems often involved isolating OT networks from external threats, or in other words, through a process known as "airlocked". However, the emergence of Industry 4.0 has made this type of isolation contradictory to the merging of industrial operations with machine learning, automation and IT databases. Thus, despite the benefits of this convergence, it has also led to the elimination of the early form of air-gapping from industrial networks, leaving them vulnerable to more cyber threats. 

Working well together  

While IT security may appear to be more advanced, the integration of IT and OT security remains a critical issue. To protect their digital networks, OT security must adopt best practices and operational protocols from IT security. It is also important for cyber security experts to adhere to OT standards when considering IT security. 

Underestimating the impact of a security breach on businesses can be disastrous, particularly in industries like manufacturing, where industrial processes can pose significant risks to people and property. For instance, if heavy machinery malfunctions, it can cause serious injuries to workers or even lead to a train derailment. Additionally, a security breach can disrupt the supply chain down the production line, which can be particularly problematic for industries like pharmaceuticals, where delays or interruptions can prevent crucial products from reaching the market, resulting in significant financial losses and potentially harming consumers' health. 

The 2021 Colonial Pipeline attack is a prime example of this. A Russian cybercriminal group used ransomware to hack into a US oil pipeline company's IT system, forcing them to shut down operations to prevent damage to the OT system. The attack disrupted the lives of millions of people and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to rectify, even after the company paid a $4 million ransom. 

What the future holds  

The convergence of IT and OT security is not a binary choice but rather a new paradigm altogether. In the past, OT security focused on reactive measures, which was sufficient when dealing with closed systems that were less susceptible to external attacks. However, the shift towards Industry 4.0 has necessitated a move towards proactive security measures similar to those employed by IT security professionals. 

To achieve this, IT/OT systems must be continuously monitored and updated to reduce their vulnerability to attacks. One emerging technology that OT security experts are using to achieve this is attack simulation, which allows for the testing of network resilience. By using accurate network models, AI can identify vulnerabilities within an OT network, enabling security professionals to make informed decisions on which changes or updates are necessary to patch the most pressing vulnerabilities first. 

As technology advances, the outlook for OT security is promising, with the emergence of a new and more effective approach that combines the strengths of both IT and OT security to identify vulnerabilities and mitigate risks. It is not just a matter of integrating two different cybersecurity approaches but rather creating a third and more powerful system.