Cybersecurity and Operational Technology

Not all technology is created equal, even if it all seems to serve the same function. Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) are two particular strains of digital systems that, while seemingly similar, serve radically similar functions for an organization. That being said, IT and OT are merging due in no small part to industrial applications of IoT technology. But as these traditionally separate domains integrate, they also bring forward a unique array of cybersecurity risks and organizational challenges. 


What Is Operational Technology?

Operational Technology refers to the hardware and software used to change, monitor or control the enterprise’s physical devices, processes, and events, including that management of software and physical machinery. Operational technology is a foundational part of any utility or industrial organization, including operations in water treatment, power production and distribution, and manufacturing. 

On the other hand, Information Technology systems refer to the application of computers and telecommunications equipment to store, retrieve, transmit, and manipulate data. IT systems primarily deal with information processing, data management, internet functionality, and software applications.

The main difference between OT and IT lies in their primary objectives. OT systems are designed to interact with physical systems, emphasizing the management of operational capabilities and efficiencies. They are often built with a long lifespan in mind and can remain in operation for several decades. Conversely, IT systems are intended for processing and storing data, and their design is focused more on data integrity, confidentiality, and availability. 


What Is the Industrial Internet of Things?

operational technology

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) refers to the application of the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies in the industrial sector. It involves the interconnection of machines, devices, and assets, enabling them to communicate and share data with humans in real time.

Unlike the general IoT, which includes consumer devices like smart home appliances and wearables, IIoT focuses explicitly on industrial applications. These applications typically have more stringent reliability, efficiency, and safety requirements. 

Here’s how IIoT is applied in the industrial context:

  • Predictive Maintenance: Sensors attached to machines can detect and communicate potential problems before they result in failure, reducing downtime and maintenance costs.
  • Efficiency Optimization: Data collected from different parts of the production process can be used to identify inefficiencies and optimize operations.
  • Real-Time Monitoring: Real-time data can help operators monitor operations and make quick decisions.
  • Remote Operation and Control: IIoT allows operators to control machinery and processes remotely, which can be particularly beneficial in hazardous environments.
  • Supply Chain Traceability: Sensors and connectivity can provide transparency and traceability along the supply chain, improving inventory management and reducing waste.
  • Smart Grids: In the energy sector, IIoT enables smart grids to optimize power distribution and reduce energy usage.

While IIoT brings substantial benefits, it also presents new challenges, particularly around data security and privacy. As such, robust cybersecurity measures are essential in any IIoT implementation.


IT and OT Convergence

IIoT fundamentally changed the name of the game when it comes to monitoring physical processes and systems… most importantly, it folds IT capabilities into physical system management to leverage data-gathering and analytics. 

Key factors driving IT and OT convergence include:

  • Efficiency and Productivity: The integration of IT and OT can drive better business decision-making. By using IT-capable data analysis capabilities on OT-generated data, businesses can uncover insights to optimize operational efficiency and productivity.
  • Real-Time Decision Making: The convergence enables the use of real-time data from OT systems for faster decision-making processes, leading to more timely business decisions.
  • Cost Reduction: Through this convergence, companies can reduce costs by eliminating redundant roles and infrastructure and improving operational efficiency.
  • Improved Visibility: By converging IT and OT, companies can get a holistic view of their operations, which can help them identify issues and opportunities that were previously obscured when these systems were separated.

However, despite these benefits, IT/OT convergence also presents challenges:

  • Cybersecurity Risks: OT systems were not traditionally designed to be connected to the broader internet, so when integrated with IT systems, they can become vulnerable to cyber threats.
  • Cultural and Organizational Differences: IT and OT have different goals, workflows, and languages. Bridging these differences requires careful change management.
  • Legacy Systems: Many OT systems are older and may need to be more easily compatible with modern IT systems, requiring significant upgrades or replacements.

Overall, while the convergence of IT and OT has the potential to deliver significant benefits, it needs to be approached strategically, considering both the opportunities and the challenges it presents.


What Are Common Threats Against Operational Technology Infrastructure?

OT systems face a unique set of cybersecurity threats due to their intersection with the physical world and their increasing connection to IT networks.

Here are some common cybersecurity threats against OT systems:

  • Malware Attacks: These include ransomware, viruses, and worms that can infect OT systems, often causing disruption, gaining unauthorized control, or extracting ransom from the organization.
  • Spear Phishing: This involves using targeted emails to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information or installing malware on their systems.
  • Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs): APTs are long-term targeted attacks where hackers gain access to a network and remain undetected for an extended period. These attacks can cause significant harm to OT systems.
  • Industrial Espionage: Competitors or nation-states might attempt to steal trade secrets or disrupt operations, targeting OT systems to gain a competitive advantage.
  • Insider Threats: These can come from disgruntled employees, contractors, or anyone with authorized access to the OT systems who might misuse it to cause harm intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Supply Chain Attacks: Attackers might compromise a vendor or supplier’s systems to gain access to an organization’s OT network.
  • Unpatched Vulnerabilities: Many OT systems run on old software that may not be regularly updated, exposing them to known vulnerabilities that cybercriminals can exploit.
  • Lack of Network Segmentation: If IT and OT networks are not properly segmented, a breach in the IT network can potentially give attackers access to the OT systems.

As OT systems increasingly connect with IT systems, they become exposed to even more cybersecurity threats. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has built out a guide document for operational technology–Special Publication 800-82. Therefore, organizations must adopt robust cybersecurity measures tailored to OT environments to protect their critical operations.


Ensure the Security of Your OT and IT Infrastructure with Lazarus Alliance

If you’re working with, or supporting clients with, extensive operational technology infrastructure, then security and compliance just got a bit more complex. Don’t worry, though–with Lazarus Alliance, you can combine compliance, security, and risk management across all IT and OT digital systems.

Contact us to learn more about Lazarus Alliance.

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