A single click. That’s all it takes for a seemingly harmless email to unleash a cyberattack on your Operational Technology (OT) network. Malware can infiltrate the system, map the network, and disrupt critical processes. Unlike traditional Information Technology (IT) attacks focused on data theft, the consequences for OT systems are far more severe. Physical damage, production stoppages, environmental hazards, and even loss of life are all at stake.

Why OT Networks are Under Siege

This is becoming a common scenario, especially in manufacturing. In fact, according to a recent Rockwell report, 80% of OT attacks originate from compromised IT networks, with phishing emails being the primary culprit (34%). The drive for efficiency and real-time data has led to the convergence of IT and OT, breaking down the historical isolation of OT systems and creating a larger attack surface for cybercriminals. A vulnerability in IT, like a phishing email or an unpatched system, can now be a direct path into OT. 

In this blog post, we'll explore:

In addition, we’ll address the unique challenges of OT network security and offer key strategies organizations can use to improve their defenses against these attacks. 

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Why Attackers Target IT to Reach OT

While a direct attack on OT systems seems like the most efficient path, the IT-to-OT attack path is a strategic and advantageous approach for a cyberattack. Here’s why:

Easier Access

IT networks are more connected to the internet and have more points of entry than OT networks. By exploiting vulnerabilities in IT systems, attackers gain initial access more quickly and then look for ways to cross over to the more isolated OT systems.

Use IT as a Steppingstone

Once inside the IT network, attackers use it as a launchpad to conduct reconnaissance and find links to the OT systems. This might include stealing credentials, escalating privileges, or identifying bridged networks that provide paths to OT components.

Bypass Specialized OT Security

OT systems often have specific security protocols and hardware that are challenging to breach directly. Accessing OT through IT allows attackers to bypass some of these specialized defenses, exploiting the less secure IT-OT interfaces.

Lack of Segregation

In some organizations, the segregation between IT and OT networks might not be strict or well-enforced, creating vulnerabilities. Attackers exploit these weaknesses to move laterally from IT to OT systems.

Prolonged Surveillance

IT networks typically handle more traffic and activities, making anomalous actions less noticeable. This extended presence can be used to understand OT system operations better, plan detailed attacks, or install malware that targets specific OT equipment.

Strategic Disruption

Disrupting both IT and OT affects business operations, data integrity, and physical processes simultaneously. This amplifies an attack’s impact, potentially leading to higher ransom demands, greater financial loss, and more significant operational disruption.

In summary, attackers often prefer the IT-to-OT path because it’s the easier entry point that offers a strategic edge. IT networks give them the tools and time needed to launch devastating attacks on mission-critical OT systems.

How Cyberattacks Move from IT to OT Networks 

Understanding why attackers target IT to reach OT is the first step. Next, it’s crucial to examine the methods they use to bridge the gap. This knowledge is essential for proactively securing the IT-OT landscape and closing attack vectors. 

Here are a few of the common pathways attackers exploit to move from IT to OT networks:  

The image shows a diagram illustrating various threat vectors for Operational Technology (OT) networks. It categorizes potential attacks into three types: direct attacks via the IT network, direct attacks on the plant network, and indirect attacks from the ICS (Industrial Control Systems) supply chain. The diagram demonstrates how these attacks can originate from external adversaries or insider threats and flow through different layers of an organization's network infrastructure, including the IT network, OT network, and ICS supply chain. It highlights vulnerabilities such as compromised VPNs, devices, and USB connections, emphasizing the interconnectedness of systems and the need for comprehensive cybersecurity measures.
  1. Exploiting IT Network Vulnerabilities: Attackers often target the IT network first, as it typically has more internet exposure and potential vulnerabilities. Once inside, they pivot towards OT systems, exploiting misconfigurations, weak firewalls, or shared resources to gain access. 
  2. Compromising Remote Access (VPN): Attackers target VPNs that provide remote access to the OT network. Compromising these through stolen credentials or exploiting vulnerabilities allows them to enter the OT environment disguised as legitimate users. 
  3. Insider Threats: Whether malicious employees or users with compromised accounts, insiders can intentionally or unknowingly facilitate the spread of malware from IT to OT. They might also directly abuse their access for sabotage or disruption. 
  4. USB Device Attacks: Attackers can use infected USB drives to bypass network security and introduce malware into OT systems. This is particularly risky for legacy systems with limited updates or inadequate device controls. 

Learn About Stuxnet

A Real-World Illustration of Cyber Attacks Transitioning from IT to OT

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Practical Steps for a Secure and Resilient OT Network 

Having explored the “why” and the “how” of IT-OT attacks, the next question becomes: How do organizations respond effectively? The old ways of isolating OT systems clearly aren’t working anymore. A fundamental shift is required to secure operations from the inside out. This means embracing a new reality where IT and OT security become a unified force, focusing on proactive defense strategies instead of just prevention. 

Here are the key strategies and practical actions organizations should take:

1. Building the Foundation: Know Your Assets and Vulnerabilities

  • Unified Asset Inventory: IT and OT teams collaborate on a comprehensive inventory of connected devices, software, and networks for complete visibility across the IT/OT environment. 
  • Joint Vulnerability Assessments: Conduct regular, collaborative vulnerability assessments to identify and prioritize risks across both IT and OT, enabling proactive defense hardening.

2. Security by Design: Proactive Protection and Monitoring

  • Collaborative Segmentation: Design network architecture with IT/OT collaboration in mind. Segment networks to balance operational needs with strong security for critical OT systems. 
  • Zero Trust with Operational Practicality: Implement Zero Trust principles, prioritizing least privilege access and continuous verification. Address legacy devices with operational integrity in mind. 
  • Real-Time OT Monitoring: Utilize systems designed for continuous OT network monitoring, enabling early detection of threats and anomalies.

3. Resilience as a Core Value: Respond, Recover, Improve

  • Collaborative Incident Response: Proactively develop and test joint IT/OT incident response plans for swift, coordinated action to minimize damage and accelerate recovery. 
  • Data on a Need-to-Know Basis: Minimize data transfers between IT and OT networks, analyzing flows to identify and close attack vectors. 
  • Resilient by Design: Implement robust backup and recovery mechanisms to quickly restore critical OT functions following a disruption.

4. Beyond the Technical: Culture, Legacy Systems, and The Future

  • Fostering a Collaborative Culture: Encourage active communication, shared knowledge, and joint training between IT and OT teams. 
  • Mindful Management of Legacy Systems: Address legacy OT systems proactively through patching where possible, isolation when practical, and hyper-vigilance. 
The image shows a diagram outlining a step-by-step approach to building an OT (Operational Technology) security strategy. The diagram is divided into sections labeled "Analysis," "Identify Opportunity," "Business Case," and "Roadmap," with key activities outlined under each. The "Analysis" section highlights reviewing the current cybersecurity strategy, aligning with stakeholders, and creating a unified vision. The "Identify Opportunity" section involves assessing assets, reviewing standards, and determining risk impact. The "Business Case" section emphasizes aligning IT and OT needs, developing project costs, and securing stakeholder approval. The "Roadmap" section covers project sequencing, aligning teams, and effective planning. The diagram also depicts various threat vectors, including direct attacks on the IT and OT networks and indirect attacks through the ICS supply chain, underscoring the need for comprehensive cybersecurity measures.

Step-by-Step Guide for Implementation 

Implementing a unified and proactive IT/OT security strategy requires careful planning and execution. This step-by-step guide provides a structured approach to achieve this transformation: 

Step 1: Assess and Align
  • Critical Review: Analyze your current risk-based approaches and cybersecurity strategy. Ensure they align with your organization’s future operational goals. 
  • Stakeholder Consensus: Collaborate with IT and OT teams to develop a shared vision for your cybersecurity framework. This builds unity from the start. 
Step 2: Identify and Prioritize
  • Asset and Vulnerability Mapping: Conduct a comprehensive inventory of IT/OT assets and assess potential threats. Establish clear cybersecurity standards across both domains. 
  • Prioritize Risk: Focus on high-risk areas within the attack continuum. Assess operational impact and prioritize remediation efforts accordingly. 
Step 3: Build the Business Case
  • Quantify ROI: Clearly articulate the return on investment (ROI) for both IT and OT security measures. Include both capital expenses (CAPEX) and operational expenses (OPEX). Highlight potential gains in operational efficiency alongside security benefits. 
  • Secure Buy-in: Obtain explicit approval from IT and OT leadership. Clearly outline shared responsibilities and any workforce upskilling needed. 
Step 4: Create a Strategic Roadmap 
  • Sequence Prioritized Projects: Develop a roadmap that prioritizes projects or pilot programs based on risk reduction and investment. Ensure organizational agreement on outcomes before finalizing. 
  • Define Program Management: Establish clear governance structures, project management practices, and realistic timelines. Outline funding strategies. 
Step 5: Execute and Adapt
  • Data-Driven Implementation: Conduct leadership interviews, workshops, and in-depth plant visits to understand operational context and pain points. Analyze performance data to establish benchmarks. 
  • Continuous Improvement: Regularly review the roadmap with stakeholders. Adapt strategies as technology, threats, and operational needs evolve. 

IT-OT Convergence Case

See How Organizations Are Successfully Converging OT and IT Security Efforts

Read the Case Study

The Path to a Secure OT Future 

The IT-OT convergence is a transformative shift that will continue to reshape industries. Organizations that adapt their security strategies to capitalize on a future where critical operations are safeguarded by seamlessly integrated security measures, threats are detected and neutralized before causing damage, and innovation flourishes without compromising safety. This future is within reach for organizations that commit to building a resilient, connected, and secure OT landscape. 

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