The current and future state of smart OT security

Issue 5 2022 Industrial (Industry), Information Security, Infrastructure

It’s no surprise that security and network professionals working in operational technology (OT) environments are eager to take advantage of the emerging capabilities of digital transformation. Adopting modern technologies like cloud computing, machine automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) across the industrial sector offers many potential benefits, ranging from streamlined processes that contribute to increased staff productivity to decreased plant downtime.

However, a new report published by Smart Industry and sponsored by Fortinet explores the challenges these decision makers face when balancing the acceleration of their digital transformation efforts with the creation and maintenance of a strong security programme. The report also highlights smart OT security strategies that leaders can employ to support their digital transformation efforts while guarding against clever threat actors.

Smart Industry surveyed 109 professionals in the manufacturing industry across companies of all sizes, with 21% of respondents holding C-level roles within their organisation. Respondents represent a wide range of verticals within OT: utilities, chemical/pharmaceutical, automotive, and oil and gas.

Cybersecurity awareness growing in OT environments

Most modern industrial systems weren't built with security in mind. Yet as OT and IT networks coverage, OT is increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks.

The good news is that 63% of the network and security leaders surveyed are aware of and involved with the security practices related to their organisation’s OT efforts. The majority of respondents (83%) also recognise that greater connectivity makes their assets more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

However, despite this awareness, nearly 60% of these respondents also revealed that their organisation suffered at least one breach during the past 12 months, with 10% experiencing four or more. A few said they'd experienced 11 or more.

The most troubling finding is that 25% said they “didn’t know” if their OT environment had been compromised in the past year.

While it’s easy to assume an environment is protected, operating with an “assume breach” mindset often motivates organisations to establish more robust security protocols. This shift gives them greater visibility into their environment so they can, among other things, confidently say whether they’ve experienced a breach.

Malware and phishing top the list of OT cyberattacks

Of the decision makers whose organisations experienced security incidents in the past 12 months, 71% said they’d suffered a malware or phishing attack. Other incident types experienced by respondents included those related to the exploitation of known vulnerabilities (32%), ransomware (25%) and social engineering (25%).

The prevalence of malware and phishing attacks isn’t surprising, as malware and phishing attempts are widespread. They’re easier for clever attackers to implement, and when payments are requested of the victims, they are usually far less than what’s asked as part of a larger-scale ransomware attack.

Operational outages and data loss

One of the biggest concerns of a successful attack on an OT system is downtime. Manufacturing floors can lose thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for every hour they’re offline. And those fears are justified given that, of the respondents whose organisations experienced a breach in the past year, 59% said the breach caused an operational outage and impacted productivity. The ongoing fallout from these attacks is also concerning, with respondents saying they lost business-critical data (28%) and intellectual property (25%) because of a breach.

While security incidents are inevitable, how organisations respond to and recover from cyberattacks is a strong indicator of the effectiveness of the risk management strategies they have in place.

The good news is that more than 80% of respondents said they have the capability to accurately detect and respond to a security incident that occurs in their OT environment. What's even better: more than a third of respondents (35%) recently performed a cyber-risk audit and/or an OT-specific security assessment. Another 27% performed one or both of these assessments within the past year.

These proactive cybersecurity practices indicate a strong commitment to exposing and addressing vulnerabilities to improve the overall health of an organisation's security programme.

OT security is a mixed bag

What’s clear from the report is that there isn’t always a clear connection between awareness, intention and results. OT teams that are aware of cyber risks are still being breached, often several times a year. Part of the challenge is the trade-off that many teams make between digital transformation and cybersecurity. As organisations accelerate their digital transformation efforts, their exposure to cyber risk increases. If not managed carefully, speeding up systems and processes can amplify errors and mask the ability to detect and recover from a breach in a timely manner.

The report offers additional ideas for better securing OT systems, such as adopting a Zero Trust approach to security, properly segmenting IT and OT environments, and regularly auditing an organisation's security programme. Additional measures, such as deploying a unified security framework across both IT and OT networks, help ensure that security systems can share and correlate threat intelligence, consistently enforce policy, and implement AI-enhanced automation to detect and respond to threats in real time.

Read the full report at


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