The Convergence of IT and OT in Cybersecurityby@zacamos
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The Convergence of IT and OT in Cybersecurity

by Zac AmosSeptember 23rd, 2022
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Both IT and OT play critical roles in keeping an organization protected from external and internal threats, but the terms have distinct meanings and require different approaches to cybersecurity. IT is centered around front-end information activities, whereas OT is concerned with the back-end machines allowing companies to make use of that information. Companies are now rethinking their approaches to IT/OT, opting for a convergence of the two. While cybersecurity is commonly discussed in IT circles, it also needs to be a major part of operational technology management as well.

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The world is becoming increasingly data-driven, interconnected, and digital. This means that the need for strong enterprise cybersecurity is growing rapidly. Companies of all sizes and across virtually every sector are potential targets for cyberattacks such as data breaches, ransomware, phishing, or a distributed denial of service (DDoS).

Something less frequently discussed – but no less important than the threatening cybersecurity landscape – is the relationship between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT).

Both IT and OT play critical roles in keeping an organization protected from external and internal threats, but the terms have distinct meanings and require different approaches to cybersecurity. Additionally, IT and OT are converging, which further alters the cybersecurity landscape for all types of organizations.

Take a deep dive into the convergence of IT/OT, how this impacts cybersecurity, and the vital role of OT cybersecurity, and explore some of the best OT cybersecurity practices.

IT vs. OT: Understand the Differences

Before discussing the convergence of IT and OT, it’s crucial to understand the definitions of both terms, how they differ, and why they’re intersecting in the world of cybersecurity.

IT is a professional business sector that focuses on the technology – such as computing, hardware, software, telecommunications, and other elements – used to transmit information, as well as the systems that make modern communication possible.

Many would argue that IT serves as the backbone of any business. Some common examples of IT include open or integrated computer systems, server hardware, and software and telephone equipment used for voice communications.

Today’s IT professionals, which require both hard and soft skills, have a wide range of responsibilities, such as keeping systems and networks secure, troubleshooting technical problems, programming, data management, and more.

On the other hand, an organization uses OT systems to monitor, connect, manage, and secure its enterprise and industrial operations. OT describes the systems that control the physical functions of an organization.

Most companies that fall under industries like manufacturing, mining, utilities, transportation, and oil and gas rely heavily on OT. Some common examples of OT include building management systems, access control mechanisms, and fire control systems.

A good way to understand the difference between the two terms is to think of IT as an organization’s office and OT as its factory floor. IT is centered around front-end information activities, whereas OT is concerned with the back-end machines allowing companies to make use of that information.

What Is the IT/OT Convergence?

As mentioned above, IT and OT refer to different elements within an organization. In the past, IT and OT were treated as individual systems with separate protocols, standards, governance models, technology stacks, and organizational units. Due to these differences, OT systems had their own sets of controls and were secured differently than IT systems.

However, OT has changed in recent years, especially due to the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0). Companies are now rethinking their siloed approaches to IT and OT, opting for a convergence of the two.

Many experts suggest the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the innovative progressions that have caused the emergence of Industry 4.0. The proliferation of the industrial IoT (IIoT) is also contributing to IT/OT convergence.

Modern companies are prioritizing their digital transformations, which involve implementing various types of digital solutions to gain a competitive edge. Examples of these solutions are smart technology, IoT, big data analytics, AI/ML, and interconnected networks.

These technologies, once implemented, allow the digital IT world to influence the physical OT world. The convergence of IT and OT creates a single, uniform environment within an organization to streamline business processes, direct control, and monitoring, and realize plenty of other benefits.

How the IT/OT Convergence Impacts Cybersecurity

With a better understanding of the convergence of enterprise IT and OT, it’s important to acknowledge how this shift will impact an organization’s cybersecurity strategy.

Thankfully, IT can monitor OT systems for problems, provide status reports, and glean other useful insights to ensure proper functioning. And while this is a major boon to an organization, it also means that an interconnected IT/OT system requires sufficient protection from looming cybersecurity threats.

OT cyberattacks can cause significant physical damage to an organization’s physical assets. Attacks can damage expensive equipment, cause downtime in production, and create a number of safety hazards for employees. No organization wants to suffer these losses or put their valued workers in harm’s way.

OT attacks are becoming increasingly common. One of the most notable OT attacks in recent memory was the 2021 attack that brought down the Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline system in the U.S. When this attack happened, it shone a spotlight on the importance of securing both IT and OT systems.

Although OT is becoming more of a concern, this does not necessarily mean companies can ignore external IT security threats or place them on the back burner. Malware and targeted attacks, phishing, exploitation of vulnerabilities, zero-day attacks, ransomware, and DDoS can still take down an organization. Therefore, organizations must place a strong emphasis on both IT and OT cybersecurity.

OT Cybersecurity Best Practices

According to research from Gartner, cybercriminals will weaponize OT environments to potentially harm or even kill humans by 2025. Organizations must know how to improve their IT/OT cybersecurity posture well before that happens. Below is the list of 10 possible OT security controls worth considering, as suggested by Gartner:

  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Training
  • Incident response
  • Backup and restore
  • Portable media
  • Asset inventory
  • Network segmentation
  • Log collection and detection
  • Secure configuration
  • Patching

In addition to focusing on these suggestions, companies should follow the best OT cybersecurity practices:

  • Implement a comprehensive OT cybersecurity program: Include essential security elements such as multi-factor authentication, malware detection, patching, post-infection detection, forensic tools, and physical security measures.
  • Keep OT asset inventory well-documented: Keep track of all OT assets, including their firmware and software specifications, and determine their level of importance and risk.
  • Create an OT vulnerability management program: Stay updated on the latest trends in OT cybersecurity and monitor updates from essential agencies, including the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
  • Provide OT cybersecurity awareness training: Employees should understand potential OT cybersecurity risks. A company can also consult with a third-party organization to continuously improve its cybersecurity posture and leverage the latest technologies.
  • Develop an OT incident response plan: Identify all key IT and OT personnel to develop an effective incident response plan to prepare for future incidents.

Because IT and OT cybersecurity threats show no signs of going away, it’s never been more critical for organizations to take preventive action and avoid future incidents.

IT/OT Convergence: Transforming Modern Cybersecurity

In modern business, the IT and OT worlds are converging due to major advancements in technology, including the internet of things (IoT), big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML).

As more businesses adopt these technologies, they must recognize the importance of securing IT and OT effectively. The ultimate goal is for companies to focus their efforts on minimizing the negative effects of an IT or OT cyberattack to achieve business continuity, remain competitive, and thrive in their respective industries.