Operational Technology (OT): The Basics
Operational technology (OT) is the hardware and software that monitors and controls industrial operations. These operations include the physical processes and equipment needed to keep critical infrastructure running smoothly. Operational technology spans a wide range of different industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, utilities, transportation, government, research, and more. Here are a few examples of OT in business and everyday life:
- Hospital diagnostic and monitoring equipment
- Industrial manufacturing robots
- Traffic light control systems
- Remote water pumping stations that transport water from one site to another
Although they may sound similar, operational technology (OT) is not to be confused with informational technology (IT). The key difference is that OT deals with equipment, while IT deals with electronic data. While most people are more familiar with IT systems, for example, computers and the internet, OT systems are just as critical to the fabric of society.
OT / IT Convergence
To make matters even more complicated, the line between OT and IT has grown more blurry over the years. Before, IT and OT systems were often kept separate. However, due to technological advances, it’s becoming more common to integrate OT with IT. This is because OT and IT systems can communicate with each other to generate helpful information and make more efficient decisions. For example, let’s say you ordered a package and want to track its location and estimated delivery time. An IT system can access information from the OT shipping container location and combine it with traffic and weather data to predict when the order will arrive.
While OT / IT convergence has several advantages, it also presents new risks in the realm of cybersecurity. Before convergence, OT systems existed in an “air-gapped” environment, meaning they weren’t linked to any external networks or digital technology. As such, OT cybersecurity simply wasn’t necessary because there was no risk of outside threats. However, linking OT systems to IT networks has opened up a whole new attack surface for hackers, and many have begun targeting OT systems. In fact, IBM reported a 2000% increase in OT cybersecurity incidents in 2019 and predicted that incidents would continue to grow by 30% every year.
What Threats Do OT Cybersecurity Breaches Pose?
Without an effective cybersecurity system in place, the consequences for your company can be severe and even deadly. Here are a few ways OT cybersecurity attacks can harm your business, employees, and consumers:
1. Production Disruptions
Whereas IT attacks focus on data theft, OT attacks are more interested in physical disruptions to equipment and production. OT system attacks usually result in equipment malfunctions that can delay or even completely shut down production. Because of OT / IT convergence, attacks to IT systems can also hold extreme consequences for OT systems. In 2021, a ransomware group infiltrated a major oil pipeline’s IT system through an unprotected VPN. The company, Colonial Pipeline, had to take its OT systems offline in order to prevent the attack from spreading. While halting production was the safest option, the decision ultimately caused a fuel shortage that impacted consumers across the nation.
2. Financial Loss
When your company’s production is disrupted or tampered with, you can expect to see some level of financial loss. On average, the annual cost of cybercrimes totals around $13 million per company. However, depending on the severity and sophistication of the OT cyberattack and your security system’s effectiveness, the financial consequences will vary. For example, if your company’s cybersecurity is particularly weak, it may cause lengthier delays in production that in turn lead to higher financial losses. Another potential financial consequence is that an OT attack might result in a company sending out defective products, forcing them to issue a product recall and refund customers. For certain industries such as pharmaceuticals or automotives, defective products can cause serious health risks or injury that may result in lawsuits and legal fees.
3. Reputational Loss
Unfortunately, many OT cybersecurity breaches happen because a company didn’t take steps to properly secure its networks or identify cybersecurity risks posed by third parties. Preventable mistakes like these reflect poorly on a company’s reputation, as they demonstrate gross negligence regarding customer safety and privacy. Many companies find it difficult to bounce back from reputational damage caused by an OT breach, which can be even more severe and long-lasting than the financial costs.
4. Loss of Life
In the worst-case scenario, OT breaches can even result in loss of employee or consumer life. Unlike IT, OT breaches are unique because of their potential for real physical harm. Consider the 2021 attack on a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida. Malicious hackers infiltrated the company’s system and raised the level of sodium chloride in the water supply over 100 times the usual amount, effectively poisoning the water. While watchful employees were able to halt and reverse the attack, the incident showcased how critical OT cybersecurity is to protecting public health. These incidents will likely only increase over time, as Gartner predicts that cyber attackers will have weaponized OT environments to successfully harm or kill humans by 2025.
The Importance of OT Cybersecurity
Because of OT / IT convergence and technological advancements, hacking into OT systems is now easier than ever. In 2020, 9 out of 10 organizations experienced at least one OT system intrusion, up 19% from the previous year. Even more alarming, 65% of these organizations experienced three or more intrusions over the course of the year. These numbers demonstrate two things: most organizations are woefully unprepared to combat OT cyberattacks, and the threat level will only increase over time.
If your company uses OT systems, then a strong OT cybersecurity system is non-negotiable. Understanding the threat landscape and how to fight back against OT cyberattacks will help reduce, if not eliminate, the harmful impacts of an OT breach. In addition, training is an essential part of any robust cybersecurity program. Employees are the strongest line of defense against cyberattacks, and offering regular training can dramatically reduce your company’s risk.
For more information on how to reduce your company’s OT cybersecurity risk, reach out to our team of compliance experts.