Interest in the IoT yields interest in OT security

The Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming more commonplace in the workplace, which has, in turn, increased interest in operational technology (OT) security.
By Paul Rogers, ISSSource July 15, 2016

The more an organization wants to raise productivity, the more its individual parts need to connect-devices to systems, machines to data, people to processes-to create increased automation. Heat sensors tell the system when to cool down. Instruments detect when medical tests are complete. Viscosity sensors keep oil running through pipelines. These man-to-man, man-to-machine, and machine-to-machine (M2M) connections on the industrial Internet increase productivity and efficiencies.

The industrial Internet represents a huge opportunity for growth and efficiency. To realize the full benefits of the industrial Internet, organizations have to connect to the Internet, to local and wide area networks, to information technology (IT) and to other control systems.

Today, the industrial world runs on critical physical assets and embedded systems known as operational technology (OT). Gartner, Inc. forecasts that 6.4 billion connected Internet of Things (IoT) will be in use worldwide in 2016, up 30% from 2015, and will reach 20.8 billion by 2020. In 2016, 5.5 million new things will get connected every day.

However, this growing number of connected devices also greatly expands the attack surface. Every new connection adds to that which security professionals must protect.

Adding to the difficulty, those who attempt to hack into the industrial Internet tend to have a lower risk/higher reward dynamic than those who attack IT networks. Operational technology (OT) hackers have little chance of getting caught and a high payoff of creating havoc if they get through. Compared to IT hackers who end up with data, OT hackers can cause immense havoc, such as disabling a factory or generating other debilitating disruptions.

As a result, OT hackers are much more persistent when they decide to target a site. In fact, the odds are stacked in favor of the OT attacker due to deteriorating network perimeters and the rapid increases in connected devices. In spite of such realities, a great amount of budget is typically spent on IT cybersecurity; not so much for OT security.

Since security professionals don’t understand the industrial Internet’s role in today’s chase for increased productivity, they don’t understand the threat. They believe their industrial Internet is truly and physically isolated from such unsecured networks such as the public Internet or unsecured local area networks. In some cases, they don’t appreciate that air-gapping, which may have been safe several years ago, no longer does the job that cyber security professionals can rely upon.

Thus, there can be a false sense of security when protecting a network that does not have, and often has never had, an active unsecured connection. There are two major reasons why this is not possible:

1. If a system is operating in isolation, that doesn’t mean it can’t get attached. An employee simply accessing an email with a keyboard can breach the gap.

2. In today’s world, to raise productivity, a system must be connected. Somewhere along the connectivity chain, the system is going to become attached—either willfully or through a possible error. In fact, most CISO’s are more concerned over accidental activities by authorized users versus threats by external adversaries. 

Raising OT cybersecurity awareness

It seems like every B2B trade publication has articles on the IoT. Although security concerns never seem to be the subject of the article, security directors are reading between the lines. And, although these articles don’t typically address the real problems inherent with protecting such systems, they are starting, at least, discuss the issues.

A case in point was the new Connected Security trade show at a major physical security exposition, ISC West in Las Vegas, this past April. The event was coined as: "The only event that focuses on building a holistic security strategy for the connected enterprise, including looking how physical and information security can end up used together to mitigate new and emerging cyber threats in a hyper-connected world." This was followed by a sign that reads: "Close the Gap between Security and IoT."

Paul Rogers is the president and chief executive of Wurldtech and general manager of GE industrial cybersecurity. Courtesy: ISSSource, WurldtechTo the OT cybersecurity purist, the tagline might cause some widespread discussion and debate of how to protect the industrial Internet. Nonetheless, the very fact that a whole new group of security professionals is now looking at connected systems via understanding the IoT as a new security frontline is good for all.

As the IoT continues to change the industrial control landscape, it will also change the very nature of industrial cybersecurity. Future industrial Internet security strategies will require a broader scope that includes cloud systems and remote devices, more emphasis on device-centric security and secure-by-design and a shift from security management silos to IT-OT security networks.

Paul Rogers is the president and chief executive of Wurldtech and general manager of GE industrial cybersecurity. This content originally appeared on ISSSource. ISSSource is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

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ISSSource has additional stories about OT security. See a related story about OT security education here.

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