Securing Operational Technology Has Never Been More Crucial

In the field of business operations in the META region, operational technology (OT) acts as a backbone, facilitating system maintenance, control, and optimization. From factories to energy projects, OT systems play an important role in increasing efficiency, ensuring safety, and maintaining reliability. However, with the increasing interconnectivity between OT and the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as the growing threat landscape, securing operational technology environments has never been more crucial.

Understanding Operational Technology

OT encompasses the hardware and software utilized to monitor and control physical devices and processes within industrial operations, including sectors such as manufacturing, energy, transportation, and utilities. It comprises of two main categories: Internet of Things (IoT) devices, which introduce networking capabilities to traditional OT systems, and Industrial Control Systems (ICS) – specialized systems dedicated to monitoring and controlling industrial processes.

Key functions of OT include:
  • Driving innovation, improving productivity, ensuring safety, reliability, and maintaining critical infrastructure.
  • Enhancing efficiency by automating and optimizing processes, minimizing downtime, reducing waste, and maximizing output.
  • Ensuring safety by monitoring environmental conditions, detecting abnormalities, and triggering automated responses to prevent accidents.
  • Providing reliable performance in harsh environments to prevent financial losses and risks to public safety.
  • Maintaining product quality and consistency by monitoring and adjusting production processes.
  • Enabling data-driven decision-making by generating insights into operations.
  • Managing critical infrastructure such as energy grids, water treatment plants, and transportation networks.

Differentiating OT from IT

While Operational Technology shares similarities with Information Technology (IT), it differs in several key aspects. IT focuses on managing digital information within organizations and OT controls highly technical specialist systems crucial for ensuring the smooth operation of critical processes. These systems include Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), sensors, and actuators, among others.

OT is not just limited to manufacturing but can also be found in warehouses and in daily outdoor areas such as parking lots and highways. Some examples of OT include ATMs and other kiosks, connected buses, trains, and service fleets, weather stations, and even electric vehicles charging systems.

The key difference between IT and OT is that IT is centered on an organization’s front-end informational activities, while OT is focused on their back-end production.

The merging of OT with IT, known as IT/OT convergence, aims at enhancing efficiency, safety, and security in industrial operations, yet also introduces challenges regarding cybersecurity as OT systems become more interconnected with IT networks.

IoT and OT Cybersecurity Forecast for META in 2024

Cybersecurity stands as a paramount concern for executives across various OT sectors in the META region. As the region witnesses a surge in cyber threats, organizations are increasingly investing in cybersecurity services and solutions to safeguard critical infrastructure and sensitive data.

Modernization and optimization top the cyber-investment priorities for 2024, according to Pwc Digital Trust Insights 2024-Middle East Findings Report. More than half (53%) of chose optimization of existing technologies and investments in order to identify those with the highest potential to create value, while 43% selected technology modernization, including cyber infrastructure.

The year 2024 is poised to bring new challenges and advancements in IoT and OT security, which could possibly shape the cybersecurity landscape in the META region.

Geopolitical Threats and APT Activity

With geopolitical tensions shaping the cybersecurity landscape, the META region is anticipated to witness heightened levels of Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) activity. Critical infrastructure, including shipping, power, and communications, will remain prime targets for cyber adversaries seeking to disrupt operations and undermine stability.

Escalating Costs of Cyber Attacks

The cost of cyberattacks is expected to escalate further in 2024, driven by an increase in ransom demands. Recent years have seen a significant rise in ransomware attacks globally, with cybercriminals targeting sectors such as healthcare and manufacturing. As ransom demands soar, organizations in the META region must bolster their cybersecurity defenses to mitigate financial and operational risks.

Heightened Threats to IoT and OT Deployments

Cyber threats targeting IoT and OT deployments are poised to intensify, posing significant risks to critical infrastructure and industrial systems. Health and safety departments, Industrial Control Systems (ICS), and IoT networks will remain prime targets for cyber adversaries, necessitating proactive cybersecurity measures to mitigate potential threats.

Focus on Network and Device Vulnerabilities

Cybercriminals will continue to exploit network and device vulnerabilities, highlighting the importance of robust patching and vulnerability scanning practices. Government infrastructures, finance, and retail sectors are particularly vulnerable to phishing attacks, underscoring the need for enhanced cybersecurity measures and employee awareness training.

Lookout for AI

With AI coming to the fore and large language models helping cybercriminals from drafting phishing mails to making AI-based robo-calling the surge of AI needs to be kept an eye on and better regulations will be the need of the hour.

On the defense front, many vendors are also pushing the limits of GenAI, testing what’s possible. It could be some time before we see broad-scale use of defenceGPTs.  In the meantime, here are the three most promising areas for using GenAI in cyber defence: Threat detection and analysis; cyber risk and incident reporting; and adaptive controls that are tailored for organizations threat profile, technologies and business objectives.

Emphasis on Supply Chain Security

In 2024, supply chain vetting and internal security methods will become mainstream, as organizations strive to fortify their defenses against supply chain attacks. With compliance orders shifting from voluntary to mandatory, enterprises will be required to align with cybersecurity standards such as IEC 62443 to mitigate supply chain risks effectively.

Rise of Cyber Threat Intelligence

The year 2024 is poised to witness a surge in cyber threat intelligence investments, as organizations seek to enhance their threat detection and response capabilities. With C-level management increasingly involved in cybersecurity decision-making, enterprises will prioritize cyber threat intelligence feeds to bolster their security posture and safeguard critical infrastructure.

Expansion of Attack Surfaces

As digital transformation accelerates across sectors, the OT attack surface is expected to expand, providing cyber adversaries with new opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities. Industries such as manufacturing and healthcare must exercise caution and diligence in navigating the complexities of digital transformation to mitigate emerging cyber threats effectively.

Structuring a Secure OT Network

Despite its critical importance, OT faces significant vulnerabilities, particularly concerning cybersecurity. As OT systems become increasingly interconnected with IT networks and the IoT, they become more exposed to cyber threats. Moreover, the inability to shut down OT systems for maintenance or upgrades poses challenges in implementing security measures effectively.

With the steady adoption of IoT and personal connected devices, an increase of over 4-fold in IoT malware attacks year-over-year has been reported in the Middle East region alone. This highlights persistence and ability of the cybercriminals to adapt to evolving conditions in launching IoT malware attacks.

They are targeting legacy vulnerabilities, with 34 of the 39 most popular IoT exploits specifically directed at vulnerabilities that have existed for over three years. The biggest receiver of these attacks has been manufacturing, followed by oil & gas, power grids and maritime.

Securing Operational Technology with a 4-Phase Approach

To address these challenges, organizations must adopt a proactive approach to building secure OT environments. This involves implementing comprehensive security measures and adhering to industry best practices. A four-phase approach can guide organizations in building a secure OT network:

  1. Assess: Conduct an assessment to evaluate the current OT environment against industry standards and identify risks and vulnerabilities.
  2. Design: Develop a comprehensive design considering elements such as network segmentation, vendor security, and defense-in-depth strategies.
  3. Implement: Implement changes into the OT network while ensuring interoperability and compatibility with existing systems.
  4. Monitor and Respond: Establish mechanisms for detection and response to security incidents, enabling a dedicated security team to contain and eradicate threats effectively.

In addition to the four-phase approach, organizations can implement other security best practices, including access control, patch management, incident response planning, physical security measures, employee training, and vendor security assessments.

By adopting a holistic approach to OT security and implementing robust security measures, organizations can mitigate cyber threats, protect critical infrastructure, and maintain the integrity and reliability of their operational systems. In an era of evolving cyber threats, securing Operational Technology is paramount to safeguarding industrial operations and ensuring the resilience of modern societies.

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