Security Experts:

Security Gaps Remain as OT, IT Converge

The accelerating digitization of business, driven by compelling commercial arguments, is driving the integration of new information technology (IT) networks with older operational technology (OT) networks. This is introducing new security risks to old technology and old technology practices -- and where the OT is driving a critical manufacturing plant, the new risk is from nation-state actors as well as traditional cyber criminals.

The good news is that many organizations understand the risks and are actively engaged in mitigating those risks. The bad news is the risk mitigation process is far from complete. 

Network and content security firm Fortinet commissioned Forrester Consulting to survey the state of converging IT / OT network security. In an associated blog, Fortinet's senior director of product marketing, Peter Newton, explains the cultural difference between IT and OT security: "IT teams have a tendency to just want to throw security technology at the network and call it good. But these networks can be very different, and what works well in one environment can have devastating consequences in the other. For example, an error that opens a port on a switch can have a very different result from one that opens a valve on a boiler."

In January 2018, Forrester queried 429 global decision-makers responsible for the security of their organization’s critical infrastructure from a range of different industries, asking about their IT / OT convergence (PDF) and the security challenges being faced. The result suggests that awareness is high, and steps are in progress (SCADA / ICS security spending is planned to increase by 77%) -- but there is much yet to be done (45% of respondents do not used privileged account management (PAM) for their administrators).

The last issue is particularly relevant given the extent to which converged networks are being opened to third-party suppliers. Sixty-four percent of the companies surveyed provide either complete or high-level access to their SCADA / ICS, including to outsourced suppliers, business partners and government agencies. This seems to be changing, with respondents taking steps to reduce the number of vendors used to provide security functions for IPS, NAC and IoT. 

"The number of organizations that now rely on a single vendor to provide a full range of outsourced solutions has jumped from 38% to 47% between 2016 and 2018," comments John Maddison, Fortinet's SVP products and solutions, in a separate blog post.

Coupled with the lack of a PAM solution, the report highlights that 45% of the respondents do not use role-based access control, which provides openings for insider threats. Indeed, internal hackers are considered a greater threat (77% of respondents are extremely or very concerned) than external hackers (70%). The greatest concern is reserved for malware at 77%, with leakage of sensitive or confidential data at 70%.

The security threat is not hypothetical. While there have already been severaal highly-publicized incidents (such as the Ukraine power outages in December 2015, and the U.S. water utility incident in March 2016) the majority of respondents have also experienced a breach. Fifty-six percent of organizations using SCADA / ICS reported a breach in the past year, and only 11% indicated they have never been breached.

SCADA / ICS breaches can have serious consequences. "Sixty-three percent of organizations say the safety of their employees was highly or critically impacted by a SCADA / ICS security breach," notes the report. "Another 58% report major impacts to their organization’s financial stability, and 63% note a serious drag on their ability to operate at a sufficient level."

Solutions to the growing SCADA / ICS risk exist, but require a new approach beyond the traditional IT security approach. IT and OT teams speak different languages for security, comments Newton. Existing OT systems may be running on an obsolete operating system on hardware that is ten or more years old. "But that may be because it only has one job," he explains: "for example, monitoring a thermostat and then throwing a switch when it reaches a critical temperature. That doesn’t require the latest technology, and if it is doing the job it was designed to do, then there is no reason to change it. But because so many of these systems run on proprietary software and use delicate instrumentation, even something as benign as scanning a device for malware can cause it to malfunction."

Solutions do exist, but must be chosen with care. "When considering a security vendor for their SCADA / ICS environments," suggests Newton, "the ability to meet compliance standards and provide end-to-end solutions, along with a reputation for reliability are the most important attributes [the respondents] look for. These organizations are looking for solutions from a variety of vendors, from systems integrators to security manufacturers."

Related: Practical Steps for Getting Started with IT / OT Security Convergence

Related: Five Ways to Overcome the Cultural Barriers to IT / OT Security Convergence

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.