Securing OT Environments with Cross-Functional Collaboration

November 20, 2023

Introduction to Securing OT Environments

In the intricate ecosystem of today’s critical infrastructures — encompassing sectors like energy, manufacturing, and utilities — operational technology (OT) stands as the linchpin. It is a domain where industrial control systems are not just facilitators but the very bedrock of operations. Yet, securing OT environments goes beyond the purview of standard IT security protocols; it demands a more nuanced approach, one grounded in cross-functional collaboration.

Imagine a scenario where a cybersecurity team, working in silos, overlooks a potential vulnerability in the OT landscape — a vulnerability that a safety or quality assurance expert could have pinpointed with precision. This is not a hypothetical situation but a recurring reality in many organizations. It underscores the pressing need for a collaborative defense strategy, one that leverages the collective expertise of cross-functional teams encompassing engineering, operations, safety, quality assurance, and beyond.

By fostering a collaborative ethos, we not only facilitate a richer understanding of the assets, risks, and controls inherent in OT environments but also pave the way for solutions that respect the legacy systems and constraints. It is a strategy that doesn’t just mitigate risks but does so by tapping into a wellspring of institutional knowledge, creating a security posture that is as deep and multifaceted as the environments it seeks to protect.

The Challenges of Securing OT Environments

Securing OT environments stands as a Herculean task, one fraught with unique challenges that extend beyond the realm of traditional IT security paradigms. Operational Technology, the convergence of hardware, software, and networking assets, plays a pivotal role in monitoring and controlling physical industrial processes, equipment, and infrastructure. It is a realm where availability, reliability, and safety are not just priorities but imperatives to maintain continuous operation.

The OT environments are often a mosaic of legacy hardware running on proprietary protocols and machine languages, tightly integrated with physical industrial processes. This intricate setup necessitates a meticulous approach to any alterations, with a keen eye on potential impacts on functionality, safety, and uptime availability. It is a landscape where the standard IT protocols of testing and patching find themselves in a complex maze, often rendering them less effective.

Moreover, the OT environments harbor a rich tapestry of stakeholders, each bringing a unique perspective and expertise to the table. From engineering and operations to safety and quality assurance, the stakeholders form a collaborative fortress, guarding the OT environments against potential threats and vulnerabilities. It is a collaborative endeavor, where insights are garnered not in isolation but through a synergized effort, tapping into the institutional knowledge of cross-functional teams.

Yet, this collaborative approach is not without its challenges. The teams find themselves navigating a landscape where changes are not just about securing systems but respecting the legacy and the intricacies of the existing setups. It is a delicate balance of enhancing security while honoring the established protocols and systems.

As we forge ahead in this digital age, the call for a robust strategy to securing OT environments grows louder. It is a call to foster partnerships, to leverage the expertise of teams who own, operate, and optimize these unique environments. It is a journey of collaboration, where the road to securing OT environments is paved with collective insights, shared knowledge, and a unified goal to safeguard the critical infrastructures that form the backbone of modern society.

Key Activities for Assessing and Securing OT

Security teams stand at the forefront, tasked with the monumental responsibility of safeguarding critical infrastructures. Here we delineate the pivotal activities that should be undertaken to ensure a robust OT security posture, drawing upon a structured and analytical approach to risk assessment.

Identifying Critical OT Assets, Systems, and Processes

A cornerstone of securing OT environments is the meticulous identification of critical assets, systems, and processes. This involves gaining a comprehensive visibility into all operational facets, thereby enabling precise asset inventory and system mapping. Leveraging analytical tools such as Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) facilitates a deeper understanding of environment priorities and vulnerabilities, fostering a culture of proactive security management grounded in empirical data and analytical rigor.

Understanding Asset Inventories and Remote Site Locations

To forge a resilient OT security strategy, it is imperative to understand the asset inventories and the nuances of remote site locations. This entails a collaborative effort with finance and operations teams to track inventory processes, thereby gaining insights into the assets spread across various organizational echelons, including remote sites like substations or pumping stations. This collaborative approach not only facilitates threat modeling but also engenders a holistic vulnerability management strategy, grounded in transparency and trust.

Mapping Interconnections Between Legacy Equipment and Protocols

In the complex web of OT environments, legacy hardware operates in tandem with older, proprietary communication protocols. It is incumbent upon security teams to map these intricate interconnections, drawing upon operations flowcharts and network diagrams to understand integration points, data flows, and protocol dependencies. This structured approach ensures that any alterations to legacy systems are undertaken with a full understanding of the potential impacts, thereby mitigating risks and fostering operational integrity.

Evaluating Risks, Failures, and Mitigation Plans

A nuanced understanding of the potential risks, failures, and the requisite mitigation plans forms the bedrock of a resilient OT security strategy. Leveraging analytical frameworks such as Failure Mode and Effects Criticality Analysis (FMECA) allows security teams to identify failure points and worst-case risks, fostering a culture of analytical rigor and precision in risk assessment. This structured approach ensures a harmonized lexicon, facilitating cross-functional coordination and enhancing the quality of mitigation plans.

Reviewing Incident Response Procedures from a Cyber Perspective

In the dynamic OT landscape, incident response procedures warrant a meticulous review through a cyber lens. This involves evaluating existing plans formulated by safety and quality teams and adapting them to address cyber incidents effectively. The goal is to foster a unified incident response strategy, integrating cyber teams into communication flows and ensuring a seamless response to both physical and cyber incidents.

Gaining Visibility into the Supply Chain and Third-Party Providers

A robust OT security strategy extends beyond organizational boundaries, encompassing the supply chain and third-party providers. Security teams must actively participate in vendor evaluations, ensuring that cyber risks are meticulously addressed. This involves leveraging supplier audits and scorecards to gain visibility into the supply chain, fostering a culture of transparency and trust in third-party engagements.

Building Cross-Functional Relationships and Buy-In

At the heart of a resilient OT security strategy lies the building of cross-functional relationships and securing buy-in from various stakeholders. This collaborative approach leverages the specialized OT expertise of groups like engineering and operations, fostering a culture of mutual respect and cooperation. By tapping into this rich reservoir of institutional knowledge, security teams can accelerate the securing of OT environments, fostering a culture of proactive security management grounded in empirical data and analytical rigor.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work when Securing OT Environments

Let’s face it, the OT world is a vast, interconnected web of complexities, and going solo just isn’t going to cut it. It’s like trying to bake a cake without a recipe; you’ve got to have the right ingredients and the know-how from the folks who’ve been there, done that.

Cross-functional collaboration isn’t just nice to have; it’s the secret sauce to nailing OT security in today’s landscape. It’s all about bringing everyone to the table, from the tech wizards in cyber security teams to the seasoned pros in various departments who know the ins and outs of the organization like the back of their hand.

Imagine the powerhouse of knowledge you’d have when you pool in insights from different teams, each bringing their A-game to the table. We’re talking about a treasure trove of tools, risk assessments, and response plans that have been tried, tested, and perfected over time. It’s like having a roadmap to navigate the intricate maze of OT environments, pinpointing assets, mapping out the connections, and being a step ahead in the risk game.

It doesn’t stop there. This collaborative spirit opens up a world of opportunities, from beefing up incident responses to getting a 360-degree view of the supply chain, ensuring no stone is left unturned in the quest for top-notch security.

Tap into the collective genius around you. Learning from the best, adapting, and coming up with a cyber security plan that’s as unique and robust as the OT environments we are safeguarding.

  • Engineering tools like Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) will help identify critical assets, risks, and mitigations. This informs cybersecurity’s understanding of the environment.
  • Operations Teams have process maps and flowcharts that provide visibility into OT systems. This helps create asset inventories and context.
  • Safety and Quality Teams have response plans and job hazard analyses that can be modified for cyber incident response. This facilitates coordination.
  • Sourcing has vendor scorecards that include cyber criteria. Finance tracks assets and spending. Both give insights into the supply chain.
  • Many OT systems are legacy equipment that are tightly integrated and use proprietary protocols. Changes must consider physical safety and availability, not just confidentiality, integrity and availability.

At the end of the day, when we join forces, there’s no challenge too big, no environment too complex to secure with DeepSeas by your side. 

Schedule virtual consultation with a OT cyber security expert today.