There is no question that cybersecurity is a top priority for operational technology (OT) managers across critical sectors like energy, manufacturing, and transportation. These systems control processes vital to society, making them highly attractive targets.

In 2023, the average cost of a data breach climbed to $4.45 million globally – a 15% increase over three years – while attacks on critical infrastructure itself surged 30%.

To safeguard vital systems from attack, OT leaders must thoroughly understand today's rapidly evolving cyber threat landscape.

This article delves into the most common OT security challenges that your organization might face. And most importantly, we’ll explore some impactful solutions to help you enhance your defenses, including asset visibility, rigorous threat analysis, and layered prevention and mitigation strategies.

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Threat: Zero Asset Visibility

Poor asset visibility across OT networks poses a fundamental security risk. Your critical business assets are often scattered across various locations worldwide, and their vulnerabilities are largely unknown.

In fact, the majority (73%) of organizations confess to poor awareness of at least 20% of their assets. 49.5% of business leaders cite vulnerability as their leading concern when it comes to their assets.

Solution: A Thorough Asset Inventory and Risk Assessment

Your organization can’t afford to stay in the dark. But where do you start getting the visibility you need?

The key is to conduct regular in-depth inventories and risk assessments of your assets. This should involve:

  • Asset Inventory

    Identify and document every OT asset that your organization owns. Of course, most organizations are constantly adding and removing new OT assets, so this inventory should be dynamic and updated regularly to reflect new acquisitions or decommissioning of old OT devices.
  • Risk Assessment

    Next, evaluate each asset's potential vulnerabilities and threats. Factors such as the asset's role, communication patterns, and possible attack vectors are considered during this phase.

Of course, you can’t protect assets through asset inventory and assessment alone. Continuous monitoring and proactive cybersecurity measures are vital to defend against potential threats.

This is enabled by solutions like the SCADAfence Governance Portal, which provides robust tools for ongoing monitoring, vulnerability management, and compliance assurance.

Threat: Insider Threats

It’s easy to get hung up on strengthening your exterior defenses – finding ways to keep outsiders from getting into your OT network.

But you can’t overlook the threat that insiders can pose. Whether they do it intentionally or by accident, employees can easily put your OT environment at risk:

  • Intentional threats include disgruntled employees sabotaging operations or leaking sensitive information.
  • Unintentional threats often arise from employees inadvertently clicking phishing links or using infected USB drives.

74% of organizations reporting an increase in insider incidents. This is partly attributed to the shift towards hybrid work, and cloud computing – which both create new, easily overlooked cybersecurity gaps – as well as supply chain vulnerabilities​.

Solutions: Access Control, Monitoring, and Training

To combat insider threats, you need robust access control and monitoring systems, coupled with comprehensive employee training:

  • Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): Assign permissions based on roles within your

    organization, regularly review and adjust them to ensure they align with job requirements.

  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA):

    Apply MFA to critical systems to add a further layer of security.

  • Monitoring and Alerts:

    Use monitoring systems to track and alert on unusual activities, such as multiple failed login attempts or accessing systems during odd hours.

  • Access Logs:

    Maintain detailed access logs for all users, including remote users, to track access patterns and detect potential insider threats.

Threat: Third-Party Vulnerabilities

Many organizations spend lots of time and a significant amount of money barricading the doors against OT attacks, only for a supplier to leave the front door wide open.

Outdated software, unpatched software vulnerabilities, and supply chain attacks are all chances for threat actors to gain easy access to protected networks.

Supply chain attacks often target vulnerabilities via external service providers who are given network access so that they can run maintenance, provide support, or deliver other services. Only 13% of organizations continuously monitor third-party security risks, signaling a chronic lack of oversight in this area.

Solutions: Enhancing Third-Party Security

Protecting yourself against third-party risks is complex – you’ll need a multi-faceted approach to do it successfully. It hinges on visibility and understanding of third-party links, as well as an in-depth assessment of the risks they pose, involving:

  • Conducting Thorough Security Assessments:

    Regular security assessments of third-party vendors, including evaluating their security measures, are crucial to identifying and mitigating potential vulnerabilities.
  • Collaborating with Vendors:

    Work closely with vendors to ensure they securely configure their products and meet specific OT security requirements. Emphasize security in the procurement process and maintain open lines of communication for ongoing risk management.
  • Implementing Patch Management:

    Keeping third-party software up-to-date with the latest patches is essential to protect against vulnerabilities.
  • Enhancing Access Control and Monitoring:

    Strict access control and monitoring policies for third-party vendors help ensure they only access necessary systems.

Threat: Malware via External Hardware or Removable Media

USB flash drives might seem innocent enough. But, in reality, removable media like this are another common weakness in OT networks.

Removable media like flash drives are often infected through a compromised computer outside of your secure network. Then the malware lies in wait, only activating when users click on a suspicious file they’re unfamiliar with.

USB-borne malware threats are a popular method for attacking OT environments​​, and their frequency has increased threefold in 2023.

Honeywell revealed that 52% of cyber threats in the industrial and manufacturing sectors were designed to exploit removable media.

Solutions: Mitigating Risks from Removable Media

To address the risks posed by malware via external hardware or removable media, you’ll need to adopt a multi-layered security approach that includes:

  • Staff Training:

    Educating staff about the risks associated with removable media is crucial. This should cover best practices for handling such media and their potential threats.

  • Clear and Enforced Removable Media Policy:

    Implementing a clear policy regarding removable media, coupled with technical controls like disabling USB ports for unauthorized devices or allowing only encrypted removable media, is essential for preventing malware entry.

  • Antivirus and Antimalware Solutions:

    Deploying antivirus and antimalware solutions across the network, with real-time scanning capabilities for removable media, helps detect and neutralize threats before they can cause harm.

  • Dedicated Workstations:

    For operations requiring removable media, having dedicated workstations can limit the potential spread of malware to critical network segments.

Threat: Malware via the Internet or Intranet

When you think of cybersecurity, malware that creeps in through the internet or intranet is probably the first thing that comes to mind. And that’s a good instinct; this kind of malware is still a critical concern for organizations around the world.

From 2022 to 2023, Kaspersky blocked a record-breaking 437 million attacks around the globe, identifying more than 100 million unique malicious URLs in the process. IoT malware attacks specifically have increased 87% year-on-year, reaching over 112 million annual cases in 2022.

Ransomware is one of the most prevalent forms of malware for businesses that rely on OT networks and can cause significant reputational damage, financial losses, and service disruption.

Solutions: Strengthening Defenses Against Internet-Delivered Malware

To shield OT assets from the menace of internet-delivered malware, you can deploy a combination of strategic and technical defenses:

  • Network Segmentation: Dividing the network into smaller segments can contain the spread of malware, preventing widespread outbreaks.
  • Firewalls and Intrusion Prevention Systems: These systems can block malicious traffic and unauthorized attempts to access network resources.
  • Application Whitelisting: Limiting operations to pre-approved software greatly reduces the risk of unauthorized applications.
  • Continuous Monitoring and Detection: Platforms like SCADAfence offer real-time insights into network activities, enabling the early detection of potential threats.

Fortifying the Future of OT Security

As the digital landscape evolves, the number of cybersecurity threats is growing rapidly. And businesses with extensive OT networks are among the most vulnerable.

Understanding the threats described here and implementing the suggested solutions isn’t just about protecting assets – it's about ensuring operational continuity and reputational integrity.

By embracing security solutions tailored to the unique needs of the OT environment, organizations can confidently navigate challenges and secure their operations for the present and future.

Are you ready to take the next step in securing your OT infrastructure from threats?

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